Opinions about beauty may be shaped just as much by past social interactions as by our genes.
Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, because much of what attracts us to other people is guided by our individual life experiences, according to a survey that asked thousands of volunteers to rate the attractiveness of various multinational faces.
There are some universal aspects of human faces, like symmetry, that most people find attractive. But these common aesthetic preferences account for only about 50 percent of our total attraction to a face, the new study suggests.
The other half of the equation is very personal—and even the remembered face of a childhood girlfriend or boyfriend might have a lifelong impact on our preferences. That’s why even identical twins with the same genes don’t always fancy the same faces.
“People will generally agree that Brad Pitt is an attractive guy,” says study co-author Jeremy Wilmer, a Wellesley College psychologist. “There might be some very interesting debates around the dinner table about whether he’s a 7 or a 4. But the reason that supermodels make loads of money is that, on average, lots of people think they are pretty attractive.”
The source of our shared preferences has long been a topic of debate. Some previous research has suggested an evolutionary role, likely tied to healthy and successful reproduction, while other studies stress the role of culture in shaping our tastes.
Rather than focus on what makes someone universally attractive, though, Wilmer and his colleagues wanted to explore the extent to which beauty is up to the individual eye, and where our peculiar preferences come from.
They set up a website featuring 200 widely different faces—including computer-generated visages and stock photos from many nations—to better mimic what we see in the real world and gain insight on attractiveness in the broadest sense.
First some 35,000 volunteers visited the site to rate the 200 faces on an attractiveness scale from 1 to 7. This helped refine the way the authors tested for individual face preferences, and it also reinforced the notion that a person’s preferences are somewhat predictable.
“It turns out that we can predict about 50 percent of a random person’s preferences with another random person’s preferences,” Wilmer explains. “But then the other 50 percent of our preferences are different.”
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