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Rating Facial Attractiveness

August 2009 - According to Robert G. Franklin, graduate student in psychology, and Reginald Adams, assistant professor of psychology and neurology at Penn State University, women are as complicated as men say they are when evaluating potential mates. Franklin said:

"We have found that women evaluate facial attractiveness on two levels - a sexual level, based on specific facial features like the jawbone, cheekbone and lips, and a nonsexual level based on overall aesthetics. At the most basic sexual level, attractiveness represents a quality that should increase reproductive potential, like fertility or health." From the nonsexual perspective, attractiveness can be perceived as a whole as brains judge beauty on the basis of the sum of the parts they see. "But up until now," said Franklin, "this (dual-process) concept had not been tested." The researchers findings are reported in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The researchers showed a variety of male and female faces to fifty heterosexual female college students. The subjects were asked to rate the faces on a scale of one to seven as both hypothetical dates and hypothetical lab partners. The first question was intended to invoke a sexually based rating of attractiveness, while the second question focused on the aesthetic level.

The same faces were presented to another group of fifty heterosexual female students. But some faces were split horizontally, with upper and lower halves shifted in opposite directions. The researchers asked the second group of participants to rate overall attractiveness of split and whole faces on the same scale.

The reaechers argued that dividing faces in half and disrupting participants' total facial processing would force the subjects to rely more on specific facial features to determine attractiveness. Specifically, they believed that the sexual route would function particularly when the women saw faces likely to be viewed as hypothetical dates rather than lab partners. According to Franklin, the study showed the results they expected: "the whole face ratings of the second group correlated better with the nonsexual 'lab partner' ratings of the first group."

"The split face ratings of the second group also correlated with the nonsexual ratings of the first group when the participants were looking at female faces. The only change occurred when we showed the second group split, male faces. These ratings correlated better with the 'hypothetical date' ratings of the first group."

At a statistically significant level, splitting faces in half led to female subjects relying on a purely sexual strategy to process the perception of male faces. The researchers hold that the study verifies the existence of two ways of assessing facial appeal and that they can be separated for women.

"We do not know whether attractiveness is a cultural effect or just how our brains process this information," said Franklin. "In the future, we plan to study how cultural differences in our participants play a role in how they rate these faces. We also want to see how hormonal changes women experience at different stages in the menstrual cycle affect how they evaluate attractiveness on these two levels."

Strangers and close relations

Research from Harvard University published in Perception (Perception, 2007, 36, pp 1674-1681, "Beauty is in the ‘we’ of the beholder: Greater agreement on facial attractiveness among close relations", P Matthew Bronstad, Richard Russell) found that people who know each other well are more likely than strangers to agree on the attractiveness of faces. Previous research has shown that while there are cross-cultural standards of facial beauty, there is greater agreement within cultures. This study narrows the focus of preferences within even smaller groups.

Richard Russell, of the department of psychology said:

"While there are some universal standards of beauty, this study shows that perception and standards of attractiveness are more likely to be shared among individuals who know each other well."

Researchers asked 113 volunteers to rate 74 young Caucasian faces on a scale from one to seven, from very attractive to very unattractive. The participants included 20 pairs of spouses, 20 pairs of siblings and 41 pairs of close friends. Each participant completed the test separately to avoid influencing their partner. Participants ranged widely in age but were of a similar background; all were Caucasian North Americans.

Participants were also paired with an individual they had not met before. Researchers found that while the strangers' ratings of the faces were often similar, ratings of spouses, siblings and close friends were markedly more in agreement. Siblings' ratings were not more closely correlated than those of spouses or close friends, suggesting that genetics is not the sole cause of facial attractiveness preferences.

Researchers found that the number of years that pairs had spent in daily contact was related to the strength of their agreement. They suggest that this could be because individuals who had spent a great deal of time together saw many of the same faces on a day-to-day basis.

Matthew Bronstad, of the Schepens eye research institute commented:

"Because close relations know and see many of the same people, their visual 'diet' of faces has been similar. It's likely that repeated visual exposure to the same faces could have an effect on their perception of what makes a face attractive."

Attentional Adhesion

Research from Florida State University published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier in 2007 studied a psychological phenomenon called "attentional adhesion" and found that whatever the motive, we are automatically and strongly drawn to attractive people and are rendered temporarily unable to avert our attention.

Jon Maner, lead author and assistant professor of psychology commented:

"It's like magnetism at the level of visual attention."

Together with graduate students Matthew Gailliot, D. Aaron Rouby and Saul Miller, Jon Maner studied a total of 442 heterosexual male and female participants in a series of three experiments. Participants first completed questionnaires to determine their degree of motivation to seek out members of the opposite sex and undertook a series of 'priming' activities. Photos of highly attractive and average-looking men and women were then briefly displayed in one quadrant of a computer screen and participants were asked to shift their attention away. Researchers found participants fixated on highly attractive people within the first half second and took longer to stop looking at them. The study found little difference between the sexes but those in committed relationships were more interested in highly attractive people of the same sex.

Jon Maner said:

"If we're interested in finding a mate, our attention gets quickly and automatically stuck on attractive members of the opposite sex. If we're jealous and worried about our partner cheating on us, attention gets quickly and automatically stuck on attractive people of our own sex because they are our competitors."

"Women paid just as much attention to men as men did to women. I was also surprised that jealous men paid so much attention to attractive men. Men tend to worry more about other men being more dominant, funny or charismatic than they are. But when it comes to concerns about infidelity, men are very attentive to highly attractive guys because presumably their wives or girlfriends may be too."

Researchers explain that attentional adhesion can be an unconscious phenomenon; our brains having evolved in this way to facilitate finding a mate and rebuff potential competitors. However, it can have problematic consequences. The study found that people in committed relationships had difficulty averting their attention from images of attractive people of the opposite sex. Researchers suggest that fixating on images of perceived rivals could contribute to feelings of insecurity and that "unreal" images in the media may exacerbate low self-esteem.

Jon Maner added:

"It may be helpful to try to minimize our exposure to these images that have probably been 'doctored'. We should pay attention to all of the regular-looking people out in the world so that we have an appropriate standard of physical beauty. This is important because too much attention to ultra-attractive people can damage self-esteem as well as satisfaction with a current romantic partner."

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