Do You Love This Face?

If you think that physical appeal is strictly a matter of personal taste and cultural bias, think again. Who you find attractive, say psychobiologists, is largely dictated by evolutionary needs and hardwired into your brain

By Brad Lemley
Feb 1, 2000 6:00 AMJul 13, 2023 3:44 PM


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She's cute, no question. Symmetrical features, flawless skin, looks to be 22 years old-entering any meat-market bar, a woman lucky enough to have this face would turn enough heads to stir a breeze. But when Victor Johnston points and clicks, the face on his computer screen morphs into what a mesmerized physicist might call a discontinuous state of superheated, crystallized beauty. "You can see it. It's just so extraordinary," says Johnston, a professor of biopsychology at New Mexico State University who sounds a little in love with his creation.

The transformation from pretty woman to knee-weakening babe is all the more amazing because the changes wrought by Johnston's software are, objectively speaking, quite subtle. He created the original face by digitally averaging 16 randomly selected female Caucasian faces. The morphing program then exaggerated the ways in which female faces differ from male faces, creating, in human-beauty-science parlance, a "hyperfemale." The eyes grew a bit larger, the nose narrowed slightly, the lips plumped, and the jaw contracted. These are shifts of just a few millimeters, but experiments in this country and Scotland are suggesting that both males and females find "feminized" versions of averaged faces more beautiful.

Johnston hatched this little movie as part of his ongoing study into why human beings find some people attractive and others homely. He may not have any rock-solid answers yet, but he is far from alone in attempting to apply scientific inquiry to so ambiguous a subject. Around the world, researchers are marching into territory formerly staked out by poets, painters, fashion mavens, and casting directors, aiming to uncover the underpinnings of human attractiveness.

The research results so far are surprising-and humbling. Numerous studies indicate that human beauty may not be simply in the eye of the beholder or an arbitrary cultural artifact. It may be an ancient, hardwired, universal, and potent behavior-driver, on a par with hunger or pain, wrought through eons of evolution that rewarded reproductive winners and killed off losers. If beauty is not truth, it may be health and fertility: Halle Berry's flawless skin may rivet moviegoers because, at some deep level, it persuades us that she is parasite-free and consequently good mating material. Acquired, individual preferences factor in, but research increasingly indicates that their influence is much smaller than many of us would care to know. While romantic writers blather about the transcendence of beauty, Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser more than 400 years ago pegged the emerging scientific thesis: "Beauty is the bait which with delight allures man to enlarge his kind."

Implications of human-beauty research range from the practical-providing cosmetic surgeons with pretty-people templates-to the political and philosophical. Landmark studies show that attractive males and females not only garner more attention from the opposite sex, they also get more affection from their mothers, more money at work, more votes from the electorate, more leniency from judges, and are generally regarded as more kind, competent, healthy, confident, and intelligent than their big-nosed, weak-chinned counterparts. (Beauty is considered such a valuable trait by some that one entrepreneur recently put up a Web site offering to auction off the unfertilized ova of models.)

Human attractiveness research is a relatively young and certainly contentious field-the allure of hyperfemales, for example, is still hotly debated-but those on its front lines agree on one point: We won't conquer "looks-ism" until we understand its source. As psychologist Nancy Etcoff, author of the 1999 book Survival of the Prettiest, puts it: "The idea that beauty is unimportant or a cultural construct is the real beauty myth. We have to understand beauty, or we will always be enslaved by it."

the modern era of beauty studies got a big push 20 years ago with an awkward question in a small, airless room at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Psychology graduate student Judith Langlois was defending her doctoral dissertation-a study of how preschool children form and keep friendships-when a professor asked whether she had factored the kids' facial attractiveness into her conclusions. "I thought the question was way off the mark," she recalls. "It might matter for college students, but little kids?" After stammering out a noncommittal answer-and passing the examination-she resolved to dig deeper, aiming to determine the age at which human beings could perceive physical attractiveness.

Nature or Nurture? "The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World" assess the source of good looksBy Robert Sapolsky

As a scientist doing scads of important research, I am busy, very busy. What with all those midnight experiments in the lab, all that eureka-ing, I hardly have any time to read professional journals. Thus, I only lately got the chance to peruse People magazine's most recent compilation of "The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World." It was fabulous. In addition to offering helpful grooming tips, the issue grapples with one of the central conundrums of our time: Which is ultimately more influential, nature or nurture? "About beauty," opine the editors, "the arguments can be endless." No such shilly-shallying for the Chosen Ones themselves: The 50 Most Beautiful and their inner circles appear to harbor militant ideologues in the debate.

Consider first the extreme nurturists, who eschew the notion that anything is biologically fixed. There's Ben Affleck, who in service to stardom has slimmed down, pumped up, and had his teeth capped. Affleck is clearly a disciple of John Watson, famous for the nurture credo: "Give me a child and let me control the total environment in which he is raised, and I will turn him into whatever I wish." It's hardly surprising that Affleck's celebrated affair with Gwyneth Paltrow, clearly of the genetic determinist school (read on), was so short-lived.

A nurture viewpoint is also advanced by TV star Jenna Elfman, who attributes her beauty to drinking 100 ounces of water a day, eating a diet based on her blood type, and using a moisturizer that costs $1,000 a pound. Jaclyn Smith, the erstwhile Charlie's Angel, maintains her beauty has been preserved by not smoking, not drinking, and not doing drugs. However, even a neophyte student of human developmental biology might easily note that no degree of expensive moisturizers or virtuous living would get, say, me on People's pulchritudinous list.

Naturally, similarly strong opinions emanate from the opposing, nature faction-the genetic determinists among the Most Beautiful. Perhaps the brashest of this school is Josh Brolin, an actor whose statement could readily serve as a manifesto for his cadre: "I was given my dad's good genes." Similar sentiments emerge from the grandfather of the aforementioned Paltrow, who avows that she was "beautiful from the beginning."

The very epitome of the natalist program, in which genetics forms an imperative trajectory impervious to environmental manipulation, is TV host Meredith Vieira. People's editors cite various disasters that have befallen her-shoddy application of makeup, an impetuous and unfortunate peroxide job on her hair-and yet, it doesn't matter. She is still beautiful because of her "phenomenal genes."

One searches the pages for a middle ground, for the interdisciplinary synthesist who perceives the contributions of both nature and nurture. At last, we espy Monica. The single-name singer, we are told, has an absolutely wondrous skill for applying makeup. This, at first, seems like just more nurture agitprop. But where does she get this cosmetic aptitude? Her mother supplies the answer. With Monica, Mom says, "it's something that's inborn." One gasps at the insight: There is a genetic influence on how one interacts with the environment. Too bad a few more people can't think this way when figuring out what genes have to do with, say, intelligence, substance abuse, or violence. Langlois, who had joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, devised a series of experiments. In one, she had adults rate photos of human faces on a spectrum from attractive to unattractive. Then she projected pairs of high- and low-rated faces in front of 6-month-old infants. "The result was straightforward and unambiguous," she declares. "The babies looked longer at the attractive faces, regardless of the gender, race, or age of the face." Studies with babies as young as 2 months old yielded similar results. "At 2 months, these babies hadn't been reading Vogue magazine," Langlois observes dryly.

Her search for the source of babies' precocious beauty-detection led her all the way back to nineteenth-century research conducted by Sir Francis Galton, an English dilettante scientist and cousin of Charles Darwin. In the late 1870s, Galton created crude, blurry composite faces by melding mug-shot photographs of various social subgroups, aiming to prove that each group had an archetypal face. While that hypothesis fizzled-the average criminal looked rather like the average vegetarian-Galton was shocked to discover that these averaged faces were better looking than nearly all of the individuals they comprised. Langlois replicated Galton's study, using software to form digitally averaged faces that were later judged by 300 people to be more attractive than most of the faces used to create them.

Human beings may be born "cognitive averagers," theorizes Langlois. "Even very young infants have seen thousands of faces and may have already constructed an average from them that they use for comparison."

Racial preferences bolster the idea, say some scientists. History shows that almost universally, when one race first comes into contact with another, they mutually regard each other as homely, if not freakish. Etcoff relates that a delegation of Japanese samurai visiting the United States in 1860 observed that Western women had "dogs' eyes," which they found "disheartening." Early Western visitors to Japan thought the natives' epicanthic folds made the eyes appear sleepy and small. In each case, Etcoff surmises, the unfamiliar race most likely veered from the internal, averaged ideal.

But why would cognitive averaging have evolved? Evolutionary biology holds that in any given population, extreme characteristics tend to fall away in favor of average ones. Birds with unusually long or short wings die more often in storms. Human babies who are born larger or smaller than average are less likely to survive. The ability to form an average-mate template would have conveyed a singular survival advantage.

Inclination toward the average is called koinophilia, from the Greek words koinos, meaning "usual," and philos, meaning "love." To Langlois, humans are clearly koinophiles. The remaining question is whether our good-mate template is acquired or innate. To help solve the mystery, Langlois's doctoral student Lisa Kalakanis has presented babies who are just 15 minutes old with paired images of attractive and homely faces. "We're just starting to evaluate that data," says Langlois.

But koinophilia isn't the only-or even supreme-criterion for beauty that evolution has promoted, other scientists argue. An innate yearning for symmetry is a major boon, contend biologists Anders Moller and Randy Thornhill, as asymmetry can signal malnutrition, disease, or bad genes. The two have found that asymmetrical animals, ranging from barn swallows to lions, have fewer offspring and shorter lives. Evolution would also logically instill an age preference. Human female fertility peaks in the early 20s, and so do assessments of female attractiveness. Between 1953 and 1990, the average age of Playboy centerfold models-who are presumably selected solely for sexual appeal-was 21.3 years. Similarly, Johnston has found that the beauty of a Japanese female face is judged to be at its peak when its perceived age is 22.4 years. Because men are fertile throughout most of their adult lives, their attractiveness ratings-while dropping as they age past their late 20s-remain relatively higher as their perceived age increases. As Johnston puts it, "Our feelings of beauty are exceptionally well tuned to the age of maximum fertility."

Still, a species can stagnate without some novelty. When competition for mates is intense, some extreme traits might help to rivet a roving eye. "A male peacock is saying, 'Look at me, I have this big tail. I couldn't grow a tail this big if I had parasites,' " says Johnston. "Even if the trait is detrimental to survival, the benefit in additional offspring brought about by attracting females can more than compensate for the decrease in longevity." The concept seems applicable to humans, too, because it helps to resolve a nagging flaw in average-face studies. In many of them, "there were always a few individual faces in the population that were deemed even prettier than the average," says Etcoff. "If average were always best, how could that be?"

Psychologist David Perrett of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland aimed to find out by creating two averaged faces-one from a group of women rated attractive and another from men so judged. He then compared those faces with averaged faces constructed from a larger, random set of images. The composites of the beautiful people were rated more appealing than those made from the larger, random population. More surprising, when Perrett exaggerated the ways in which the prettiest female composite differed from the average female composite, the resulting face was judged to be even more attractive.

"It turned out that the way an attractive female face differs from an average one is related to femininity," says Perrett. "For example, female eyebrows are more arched than males'. Exaggerating that difference from the average increases femininity," and, in tandem, the attractiveness rating. In the traffic-stopping female face created for this experiment, 200 facial reference points all changed in the direction of hyperfemininity: larger eyes, a smaller nose, plumper lips, a narrower jaw, and a smaller chin.

"All faces go through a metamorphosis at puberty," observes Johnston. "In males, testosterone lengthens the jaw. In females, estrogen makes the hips, breasts, and lips swell." So large lips, breasts, and hips combined with a small jaw "are all telling you that I have an abundant supply of estrogen, so I am a fertile female." Like the peacock, whose huge tail is a mating advantage but a practical hindrance, "a small jaw may not, in fact, be as efficient for eating," Johnston says. But it seems attractive because it emphasizes la différence; whatever survival disadvantage comes along with a small jaw is more than made up for by the chance to produce more babies, so the trait succeeds.

Along with his morphing program, Johnston approached the hyperfemale hypothesis through another route. Starting with 16 computer-generated random female Caucasian faces, he had visitors to his Web site rate the attractiveness of each face on a scale of one to nine. A second generation of faces was then computed by selecting, crossing, and mutating the first generation in proportion to beauty ratings. After 10,000 people from around the world took part in this merciless business, the empirically derived fairest-of-them-all was born. Facial measurements confirm that she is decidedly hyperfemale. While we might say she is beautiful, Johnston more accurately notes that the face displays "maximum fertility cues."

Johnston's findings have set off a ruckus among beauty scientists. In a paper titled "Attractive Faces Really Are Only Average," Langlois and three other researchers blast the notion that a deviation from the average-what they term "facial extremes"-explains attractiveness better than averageness does. The findings of Perrett and his team, she says, are "artifacts of their methodology," because they used a "forced-choice" scenario that prevented subjects from judging faces as equally attractive. "We did the same kind of test, but gave people a rating scale of one to five," says Langlois. "When you do it that way, there is no significant difference-people would tell us that, basically, the two faces looked like twins." Langlois argues that if extremes create beauty, "then people with micro-jaws or hydrocephalic eyes would be seen as the most beautiful, when, in fact, eyes that are too big for a head make that head unattractive."

But for Etcoff, circumstantial evidence for the allure of some degree of hyperfemininity is substantial. "Female makeup is all about exaggerating the feminine. Eye makeup makes the brow thinner, which makes it look farther from the eye," which, she says, is a classic difference between male and female faces. From high hair (which skews facial proportions in a feminine direction, moving up the center of gravity) to collagen in lips to silicone in breasts, women instinctively exaggerate secondary female sex characteristics to increase their allure. "Langlois is simply wrong," declares Johnston. In one of his studies, published last year in Psychophysiology, both male and female subjects rated feminized pictures as more attractive. Further, male subjects attached to electrical-brain-activity monitors showed a greater response in the P3 component, a measure of emotional intensity. "That is, although both sexes know what is attractive, only the males exhibit an emotional response to the feminized picture," Johnston says.

and what about male attractiveness? It stands to reason that if men salivate for hyperfemales, women should pursue hypermales-that is, men whose features exaggerate the ways in which male faces differ from female ones. Even when adjusted for differing overall body size, the average male face has a more pronounced brow ridge, more sunken eyes, and bushier brows that are set closer to the eyes. The nose and mouth are wider, the lower jaw is wider and longer. Ramp up these features beyond the norm, and you've got a hunk, right?

There's no question that a dose of this classic "maleness" does contribute to what is now called handsome. Actor Brad Pitt, widely regarded as a modern paradigm of male attractiveness, is a wide-jaw guy. Biologically speaking, he subconsciously persuades a female that he could chew more nutrients out of a leafy stalk than the average potential father of her children-a handy trait, in hunter-gatherer days anyway, to pass on to progeny.

But a woman's agenda in seeking a mate is considerably more complex than simply whelping strong-jawed kids. While both men and women desire healthy, fertile mates, a man can-and, to some extent, is biologically driven to-procreate with as many women as possible. Conversely, a woman, "thinks about the long haul," notes Etcoff. "Much of mate choice is about finding a helpmate to bring up the baby." In several studies, women presented with the hypermale face (the "Neanderthal type" as Etcoff puts it) judged its owner to be uncaring, aggressive, and unlikely to be a good father.

Female preferences in male faces oscillate in tandem with the menstrual cycle, suggests a study conducted by Perrett and Japanese researchers and published last June in Nature. When a woman is ovulating, she tends to prefer men with more masculine features; at less fertile times in her monthly cycle, she favors male faces with a softer, more feminine look. But amid the hoopla that this widely publicized finding generated, a critical fact was often overlooked. Even the "more masculine" face preferred by the ovulating women was 8 percent feminized from the male average (the less masculine face was 15 to 20 percent feminized). According to Perrett's study, even an averagely masculine face is too male for comfort.

To further complicate the male-appeal picture, research indicates that, across the board in mating species, an ugly guy can make up ground with status and/or wealth. Etcoff notes that female scorpion flies won't even look at a male unless his gift-a tasty bit of insect protein-is at least 16 square millimeters wide. The human situation isn't all that different. Anthropologist John Marshall Townsend showed photos of beautiful and homely people to men and women, and described the people in the photos as being in training for either low-, medium-, or high-paying positions-waiter, teacher, or doctor. "Not surprisingly, women preferred the best-looking man with the most money," Etcoff writes, "but below him, average-looking or even unattractive doctors received the same ratings as very attractive teachers. This was not true when men evaluated women. Unattractive women were not preferred, no matter what their status."

In matters of human beauty, hardwired preferences matter but can be overcome. Novelist George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) was strikingly homely, but her magnetic character inspired Henry James to write in a letter: "She is magnificently ugly-deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw-bone qui n'en finissent pas. . . . Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her."

it's all a bit bleak. talk to enough psychobiologists, and you get the impression that we are all rats-reflexively, unconsciously coupling according to obscure but immutable circuitry. But beauty researchers agree that, along with natural selection and sexual selection, learned behaviors are at least part of the attractiveness radar. In other words, there is room for individuality-perhaps even a smattering of mystery-in this business of attraction between humans.

"Human beauty really has three components," says Johnston. "In order of importance, there's natural selection, which leads to the average face and a limited age range. Then there's sexual selection," which leads men, at least, to be attracted to exaggerated feminine traits like the small lower jaw and the fuller lips. "Finally, there's learning. It's a fine-tuning mechanism that allows you to become even more adapted to your environment and culture. It's why one person can say 'She's beautiful' and another can say, 'She's not quite right for me.' "

The learned component of beauty detection is perhaps most evident in the give-and-take between races. While, at first meeting, different racial groups typically see each other as unattractive, when one race commands economic or political power, members of other races tend to emulate its characteristics: Witness widespread hair straightening by American blacks earlier in this century. Today, black gains in social equity are mirrored by a growing appreciation for the beauty of such characteristically black features as relatively broader noses and tightly curled hair. "Race is a cultural overlay on beauty, and it's shifting," says Etcoff.

She adds that human appearance is about more than attracting sex partners. "There was a cartoon in the New Yorker. A mother and daughter are in a checkout line. The girl is saying to the cashier, 'Oh, no, I do look like my mother, with her first nose!' As we make ourselves more beautiful, we take away things like family resemblance, and we may realize that's a mistake. Facial uniqueness can be a wonderful emotional tag. Human beings are always looking for kinship as well as beauty."

Midway between goats and gods, human beings can find some accommodation between the notion that beauty is all and that it is nothing. "Perhaps it's best to enjoy the temporary thrill, to enjoy being a mammal for a few moments, and then do a reality check and move on," writes Etcoff. "Our brains cannot help it, but we can."

To participate in an experiment in human attractiveness or to see the results of previous experiments, visit Johnston's Web site:

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