Science gives beauty some of its mystery back - for now
Jan 04,2008 00:00
World Science Staff
What is physical beauty, in a person?
In recent years, much scientific opinion has gathered in support of a somewhat dreary answer: beauty is just the average.
There’s something to that, studies show. Volunteers generally rate “average” faces, created by computers as composites of many others, as better-looking than unusual faces. Blending even just a few faces—even unattractive ones—tends to produce surprising improvements. (Try it yourself here).
But if it’s disheartening to ponder the idea that our fantasies center on a quality so, well, average—take heart. A new study may have restored a touch of the old mystery that beauty once had.
(a), composite of 60 faces; (b), of the 15 “most attractive.” (Courtesy L. DeBruine et al.)
Psychologists have found what would seem to be a slight but definite difference between average faces and the most lovely, as rated by volunteers.
“There are specific non-average characteristics that are particularly attractive,” wrote the researchers, detailing their findings the December issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. “Our results suggest that while averageness is one component of attractiveness, there is at least one other... not explainable by averageness.”
The study didn’t delve into deeper questions beauty raises: for instance, just what that non-average component could be; and what beauty’s evolutionary function might be (many scientists agree it probably helps signal good health, though exactly how is uncertain.)
But the new findings did highlight the possibility that even the limited scientific agreement surrounding such issues may be premature. A previous study, for instance, suggested beauty is that which the brain finds easy to process. But that contention depended largely on the assumption that beauty is an average; the brain presumably finds that easy to grasp, because average is typical.
In challenging the beauty-as-averageness hypothesis, the new study wasn’t breaking entirely new ground. At least one past study has also challenged it. But critics had questioned the conclusions of that work. The new study claimed to shore up some of the weaknesses that spurred those doubts.
In that 1994 study, researchers from the University of St. Andrews, U.K., averaged 60 images of faces with a computer. They then separately averaged the 15 faces that volunteers had judged as best-looking of the bunch. It turned out people rated this smaller average as handsomer than the full-group average, raising doubts about beauty as a simple average.
But other scientists raised questions. Couldn’t it be—they asked—that the top 15 faces were indeed so average, that their combination reflected the average of the human race even better than the whole 60? The newest study attempted to settle the question by repeating the experiment, but adding several others to serve as strict tests of the initial result.
The researchers, Lisa M. DeBruine at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland and colleagues, again made an average of 60 faces—all white females—and a separate average of the 15 “prettiest.” Viewers again rated this as more alluring than the full-group composite.
Further tests, the researchers said, solidified the conclusion that average and gorgeous weren’t quite the same. For example, viewers themselves independently recognized the larger average as being “more average” than that of the smaller group, apparently contradicting the idea that the smaller composite might have been the truer ultimate average.
In another test, DeBruine and colleagues subjected their hapless volunteers to a barrage of attractive-face images. Previous studies had found that looking at many images of one type, temporarily skews what viewers considers “average” toward that type. Thus, the researchers reasoned, if the beauty-is-just-average hypothesis is correct, then the volley of winsome images should have persuaded volunteers to see additional beautiful faces as even more attractive—because they look more average.
Instead, they wrote, the opposite happened: the viewers saw new images of similar faces as slightly uglier than before.
Yet another test served as something of a probe of just how far from average “ideal beauty” might be, to viewers. The apparent answer: even further than the earlier experiment suggested.
The scientists used a computer to identify the differences between the ordinary average and the “attractive” average, then exaggerate those differences. That is, the machine took the “attractive” composite, and distorted it by amplifying what it had calculated as the beautiful characteristics. By degrees, the chin got smaller; the nose narrower and more button-like. Eventually, the face started looking just bizarre.
But before that, something interesting happened. The study volunteers kept liking the images more and more until they were distorted by somewhere between one-and-a-half times, and twice, the initial “average-beautiful” difference. Only after that did people start to call the pictures uglier instead of prettier.
In other words, the researchers wrote, “at some point, caricaturing an attractive shape will result in a face that is so abnormal that concurrent preferences for averageness will outweigh preferences for the attractive shape dimension.” To put it more simply, Plain Jane is not without her charm.
Courtesy of World-Science