Many of us spend a wealth of time buying high-end make-up, clothes, and shoes to appear more attractive to others. Witty one-liners, dating workshops, and hundreds of dollars later, we still haven't mastered the art of seduction. A researcher at the University of Royal Holloway in London suggests that standing next to someone who is less attractive will make us more appealing; a phenomenon known as the “ugly friend effect.”

Our level of attractiveness has been understood as static, or unable to fluctuate. For example, if we see a picture of Jennifer Aniston — crowned People's 2016 World's Most Beautiful Woman — today, we're likely to rate her as beautiful as we would tomorrow. However, the recent study, published in Psychological Science, suggests our level of attractiveness varies according to the company we keep.

"The presence of a less attractive face does not just increase the attractiveness of a single person, but in a crowd could actually make us even more choosey!" said Dr. Nicholas Furl, lead author of the study, in a statement.

First, Furl asked participants to rate pictures of different faces for attractiveness, one by one. Then, he asked them to assess the same faces placed alongside ones perceived to be undesirable. Adding the “distractor faces” led to an increase in perceived attractiveness from the first round ranking. In other words, participants seen as attractive in the first round, were considered even more physically attractive when placed next to an "ugly friend."

Researchers then showed participants two attractive faces alongside a “distractor face,” and asked to judge between them. The presence of the less attractive face made viewers more critical between the attractive faces.

"We found that the presence of a ‘distractor’ face makes differences between attractive people more obvious and that observers start to pull apart these differences, making them even more particular in their judgement," said Flur.

If we're standing next to an unattractive friend of the same sex, the contrast effect will make us seem relatively more attractive. The “ugly friend” phenomenon is a trope often seen in teen movies and romantic comedies, where a character will associate themselves with a less attractive friend to boost their dating chances. For example, the film The Duff, an acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” delved into how the main character felt being physically compared to her friendship group.

Similar, but subtly different, the “ugly friend effect” mimics the “Hugh Hefner effect.” This occurs when people appear more attractive when they are in the company of an attractive person, or people of the opposite sex. Heffner is often pictured arm-in-arm with several of his girlfriends, increasing his attraction and overall desirability.

A 2016 study in Evolutionary Psychology found women are indeed more attracted to men who surround themselves with other attractive women. Evolutionarily speaking, this is known as “mate choice copying” and is seen when men hire a “wingwoman” to enhance their appeal at a bar or club. This effect is enhanced if the man is seen having a romantic or sexual interaction with another female, making the woman preferentially choose him as her “target” or mate.

Research highlights what we perceive as beauty or attractiveness isn't fixed. There are other variables that influence what we decide we're attracted to.

“It’s perhaps not too surprising that we are judged in relation to those around us,” said Dr Furl.

This may be why some of us tend to date different people, rather than have a designated type. Our definition of attraction is always evolving and also echoes what society perceives as beauty.

Source: Flur N. Facial-Attractiveness Choices Are Predicted by Divisive Normalization. Psychological Science. 2016.