What Makes Someone Beautiful
-by Dr. Benedict Jones of Aberdeen University. Reprinted with permission.
Research into attractiveness judgements shows that our perception of beauty is neither simple nor arbitrary, suggests Dr. Ben Jones.
Beauty contests may have lost their allure 100 years after the first international contest in Folkestone, but the scientific study of beauty has never been as widespread as over the last decade. This sudden growth is well justified: although the notion will be anathema to many, a wealth of empirical evidence demonstrates that we not only prefer physically attractive romantic partners and friends, but we even prefer to employ and vote for 'beautiful' people.
...symmetric features and clear, unblemished skin are not only perceived as attractive, but are also perceived as attractive by people from very different cultures and of very different ages.
The effects of attractiveness on critical social outcomes are not restricted to interactions among adults: research shows that mothers bond more strongly with physically attractive infants and that hospital workers and teachers invest more time and effort in 'cute' children. Given the key role that physical attractiveness appears to play in such important social outcomes, it is perhaps unsurprising that areas as diverse as psychology, neuroscience, computer science and biology have sought to identify the physical characteristics and psychological processes that underpin attractiveness judgements.
Much as beauty contest judges seek to reach a consensus about which contestant is the most attractive, early research on physical attractiveness sought to identify the physical characteristics that most people agree are highly attractive. Such research has shown that symmetric features and clear, unblemished skin are not only perceived as attractive, but are also perceived as attractive by people from very different cultures and of very different ages. These 'universal' preferences indicate that attraction may have a biological basis. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, individuals with symmetric features and healthy-looking skin will make excellent mates because they are likely to be both particularly healthy and well-placed to pass on this good health to their offspring. Also consistent with this evolutionary view of attraction is that attractive individuals are more likely to have genetic profiles that make them less vulnerable to disease.
While it is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder - implying that attraction is simply a matter of personal preference - research demonstrates remarkably high agreement among individuals in what they consider attractive. More surprisingly, recent research also shows that differences of opinion about what is attractive or unattractive can occur in predictable ways. For example, women's aversions to cues of illness, such as pallor, are substantially stronger when their progesterone levels are raised. In this phase women also show stronger preferences for individuals with faces that are similar to their own. Since raised progesterone is a characteristic of pregnancy, these effects may help to protect both mums-to-be and unborn babies from illness and increase the amount of care and support that is available from members of the extended family.
Other studies of individual differences in attractiveness judgements have found that attractive women show particularly strong preferences for masculine men, while attractive men show particularly strong preferences for feminine women. These effects of own attractiveness are thought to occur because only the most attractive individuals will be able to successfully compete for the most masculine or feminine mates and are strikingly similar to individual differences in mate preferences that have been widely reported in a number of different species.
Recent advances in brain-imaging techniques have provided the tools to investigate the brain mechanisms that underpin attractiveness judgements. Viewing photographs of attractive people increases activity in brain regions that are known to be important for processing financial, food and sexual rewards. Moreover, the extent to which we find viewing attractive individuals rewarding is profoundly affected by the extent to which these people appear to be attracted to the viewer. For example, eye contact or smiling increases how rewarding we find looking at attractive people, but decreases how rewarding we find looking at unattractive people. These effects show that attraction is far more complex than simple responses to physical beauty and that it is influenced by whether the viewed individual appears to engage with the viewer.
Far from being the shallow pursuit of bawdy titillation that characterized early beauty contests, the scientific study of attractiveness provides insight into one of the driving forces of social interaction.
Dr. Jones is a a researcher of over ten years in the study of attraction. For more information, see his site “www.facelab.org”
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