Do We Get Better Looking When The Bar's About To Close?

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
By Dr. Justin Lehmiller

What happens when something is only available for a short period of time or exists in limited quantities? We want it. Badly. That’s why advertisements and infomercials are always telling you to “act now, before time runs out” if you want to get your hands on the latest overpriced, completely unnecessary product they’re selling. However, the illusion of scarcity and its effects are not unique to the world of business — scarcity may also affect how we perceive potential sexual and romantic partners. As some evidence of this, consider a classic study on the so-called “closing time effect” — the idea that everyone seems better looking at the end of a night out, because your window of opportunity for finding someone to take home is about to close.

Research teams visited three bars in a college town at different times of the evening. Both male and female research assistants approached bar patrons at either 9:00 p.m., 10:30 p.m., or 12:00 a.m. on a Thursday night (each bar was set to close at 12:30 a.m.). The assistants made a point of avoiding patrons who were clearly drunk (read our post on beer goggles here). Researchers asked each participant for an assessment of the other bar-goers' attractiveness levels: “On a scale from one to 10," they asked, "where one indicates ‘not attractive,’ five indicates ‘average,’ and 10 indicates ‘extremely attractive,’ how would you rate the men/women in here tonight?” 

Related: Do Relationships Affect Drinking Behaviors?

Results indicated that for both male and female patrons, perceptions of attractiveness increased significantly as the night went on. In other words, as the opportunity for meeting potential partners and the number of available options decreased (due to people going home and/or pairing up with others), the remaining people started looking more desirable.

Of course, despite the researchers’ best attempts to screen out drunkards, this study can’t rule out the possibility that this is all just an effect of “beer goggles” (the midnight crew was probably a little more inebriated than the folks who were out earlier). Also, perhaps the people who were out later were just single and “on the prowl,” while the people out earlier were more likely to be in relationships. This latter possibility was tested in a more recent replication study, in which each participant was actually asked about his or her own relationship status.

Results of the more recent study revealed no “closing time effect” for participants who were in a relationship; however, for single men and women, perceptions of attractiveness indeed increased as the night went on. But, level of alcohol consumption was not controlled in this study either, which means that it could still be a viable explanation.

Both of these studies certainly have their limitations. However, they are consistent with the idea that perceptions of scarcity may influence whom you ultimately decide to take home.

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