Think about the faces that you consider attractive- faces of the people in your life or perhaps of the celebrities you like. What is it about these faces that makes them attractive? What separates these faces from the ones you don’t find attractive?
In this article, we’ll go over the different factors that influence the perception of facial attractiveness.
Research has revealed that the more average-looking a face the more attractive it is perceived to be. Participants in a study rated computer-generated composite faces (combination of faces) as more attractive than individual faces.1 As more faces were entered into the composite faces, they were perceived to be more attractive.
This finding is supported by the finding that we tend to remember unattractive faces better than attractive ones.2 Since attractive faces are likely to be average and unremarkable, they leave less distinctive impressions on our memory.
Why is it that the more closer-to-average a face the more attractive it is perceived to be? After all, it seems counter-intuitive. Since attractive faces tend to be rare, they should have more unique features than average features.
This counter-intuitive observation is best explained by what is known as the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory in evolutionary biology.
As Bruce Bridgeman writes in his book, Psychology and Evolution: The Origins of Mind…
“Most human traits are in a state of equilibrium, where the mean of the population also reflects the greatest biological fitness.”
Simply put, the idea is that a population evolves until the traits that yield the greatest fitness (reproductive advantage) are also the average of the population. When the population reaches this equilibrium, the average of the traits confers the best fitness. (see Introduction to evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology)
If this is true for most human traits and not just facial features, it explains why we tend to prefer average traits such as average body size, average weight, average height and so on but not the extremes.
If you divide a face vertically into two equal halves, the more alike the two halves are the higher the facial symmetry of the face is said to be.
Many studies have shown that we find symmetrical bodies and faces attractive. The more symmetrical a face, the more beautiful it is perceived to be.3
The preference for symmetry is observed across the animal kingdom. Facial and body symmetry indicates the presence of good genes and stability during embryonic development.
Then there is what is known as the fluctuating asymmetry, where random differences between two sides develop throughout the lifespan of an individual and is a sign of being subjected to stress. The ability to cope with these pressures is partly reflected in the levels of symmetry.
Are average faces attractive because they’re symmetric or are symmetric faces attractive because they look more average? Or is that averageness and symmetry function independently to make a face look attractive?
All these possibilities are valid. When researchers tried to eliminate the factor of facial symmetry by showing participants profile views (side views) of female faces, they found that the average face was still rated as most attractive. However, on displaying full-face views, the effect was significantly stronger.4
Presumably, averageness and symmetry work together to produce the stronger effect. This means that the face which is not only symmetrical but also closer to average will be perceived to be highly attractive.
Masculine and feminine faces
Masculinity/femininity of faces is a stronger factor in determining facial attractiveness than averageness. More masculine faces and more feminine faces are more attractive than average faces.5
After all, the ultimate goal, more often than not, of finding a face attractive is reproduction.
So sexual selection should favor those facial features in one sex that members of the opposite sex typically find attractive. It predicts that men will find feminine-looking faces attractive in women while women will find masculine-looking faces attractive in men.
Masculine facial features include low eyebrows, narrow eyes, and a strong jaw-line. Feminine facial features include higher eyebrows, large eyes, small nose and small chin.
Men and women who have these features signal the presence of sex hormones since these facial features are controlled by sex hormones.
It is interesting to note that women’s preference for masculine facial features fluctuates depending on what phase of her menstrual cycle she’s in. It’s during the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle where women show a strong preference for masculine facial features.6
The fertile phase offers the woman a window of opportunity to collect the best quality genes from a man because it’s during this time that she’s most likely to conceive. This is why when women cheat on their partners they’re likely to do so in this phase and with more masculine-looking men (good quality genes) than their partners.
A study showed that when their romantic partners are not masculine-looking, women in their fertile phase are more likely to fantasize about masculine-looking men.7
It’s likely that symmetry and masculinity/femininity of facial features work together to make a face look more attractive. In one 2008 cross-cultural study, researchers found that symmetric males had more masculine facial proportions and symmetric females had more feminine facial proportions.8
Facial attractiveness and life experiences
So far we’ve discussed the universal factors that tend to make faces attractive. But what we individually find attractive or unattractive in a face is also dependent on our unique life experiences.
For example, if you grew up with an uncle who was mean to you and had a pointy nose you might find pointy nose repulsive as an adult. On an unconscious level, it reminds you of your unpleasant uncle.
Similarly, if a person you had a crush on previously had blue eyes, you might find yourself drawn to those with blue eyes.
1. Langlois, J. H., & Roggman, L. A. (1990). Attractive faces are only average. Psychological science, 1(2), 115-121.
2. Friedrich Schiller University Jena. (2014, February 4). We recognize less attractive faces best: How attractiveness interferes with recognition of faces. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 2, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140204101714.htm
3. Rhodes, G., Proffitt, F., Grady, J. M., & Sumich, A. (1998). Facial symmetry and the perception of beauty. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(4), 659-669.
4. Valentine, T., Darling, S., & Donnelly, M. (2004). Why are average faces attractive? The effect of view and averageness on the attractiveness of female faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11(3), 482-487.
5. DeBruine, L. M., Jones, B. C., Unger, L., Little, A. C., & Feinberg, D. R. (2007). Dissociating averageness and attractiveness: attractive faces are not always average. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 33(6), 1420.
6. Penton-Voak, I. S., & Perrett, D. I. (2000). Female preference for male faces changes cyclically: Further evidence. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21(1), 39-48.
7. University of Colorado at Boulder. (2011, January 12). Men with macho faces attractive to fertile women, researchers find. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 2, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110110154651.htm
8. Public Library of Science. (2008, May 8). Why Face Symmetry Is Sexy Across Cultures And Species. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 3, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080507083952.htm