Imagine you walk into a liquor store, and a sexy woman is pouring sample shots of a new brand of whiskey. She urges you to buy a bottle, and you find that idea pretty appealing. Now, instead, imagine that that same woman is asking you to donate to charity.
Moment ruined, right?
That's the gist of the results from a series of experiments conducted at universities in Hong Kong and Singapore, to be published in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. Researchers Xiuping Li and Meng Zhang argue that when people have heightened physiological needs (when they see someone sexually attractive or when they are hungry), they feel less connected to other people, and thus, are less likely to care about others' well-being, to share resources, or otherwise try to help.
Most of the experiments started the same way. Male participants were given a series of photos and asked to choose which one should be the cover of a new magazine. Some were given photos of sexy women (for a fashion magazine, ostensibly), and others were given photos to serve as a control condition—in some cases, natural landscapes (for a travel magazine), or regular-looking women ("the life edition of a magazine," which required "an average person" on the cover). Some did not look at photos at all.
Men who looked at sexy pictures of women regularly rated themselves as less "connected" to their best friends, acquaintances, and even their future selves than men who looked at landscape pictures.
Directly afterwards, the participants were told they were completing a totally different experiment in which they had to make a series of decisions that tested their "psychological connectedness" to other people and their willingness to help others.
Among their findings, Li and Zhang report that men who looked at sexy pictures of women regularly rated themselves as less "connected" to their best friends, acquaintances, and even their future selves than men who looked at landscape pictures. The photos also appeared to have an influence on decision-making—men who looked at sexy photos were less likely to donate money, to buy a T-shirt promoting a pro-social cause, and to value products described as beneficial to others (versus beneficial to themselves) than men who looked at neutral photos. Statistical analysis showed, at least in the case of buying a T-shirt, that reduced feelings of connectedness were the underlying reason that sexy photos led to uncharitable behavior.
In a different but related experiment, both male and female participants either entering or leaving a cafeteria rated how connected they felt to other people—as the researchers expected, those who had high physiological needs (in this case, hunger) reported feeling less connected to other people.
Li and Zhang write that these findings contribute to work on the "narrowing effect," in which visceral factors (such as cravings, moods, and emotions) may "narrow the focus of attention, both toward the present over the future and toward the self over others."
While there's a time-worn tradition of advertisers using scantily clad women to attract consumers' attention, a marketer for a pro-social cause might consider steering away from attractive models and sticking with the stranded polar bear.