Cognitive Daily

I’ve created a quick animation of distorted pictures of my son Jim, together with some normal ones. Take a minute or so to watch the animation, then decide if the last picture you’re shown looks “normal” to you. Click on the normal (but pre-eyeglasses and braces) photo of Jim below to begin:


I’ll let you know whether or not the final picture was distorted in the comments.

A large body of research has found that we perceive faces that are closer to the average as more beautiful than distinctive faces. We’ve written about one such study here, but even more surprisingly other experiments have found that the pictures rated most beautiful are computer composites of several different faces, a true “average” face. But an average face in Bangkok is different from one in Nairobi, which is again different from the average face in Kansas City. There is no one “average” face—it depends on what faces you’re averaging together. Perhaps we actually arrive at a conception of beauty simply by averaging together the faces we see around us—maybe we don’t have an innate sense of beauty, but instead learn it from our environment.

That’s what the animation of Jim’s face above was supposed to do: change your idea of a “normal” face. I made the animation after reading a study by a team led by Gillian Rhodes and published in Psychological Science. I showed you distorted images, but they were distorted only in one direction—they made Jim’s face more and more spherical. I could also have distorted them in the opposite direction, making the face more and more bowl-like, but I wanted to affect your concept of normal, so I only showed you different degrees of spherical faces.

In Rhodes et al.’s study, their method was a bit more complex. First they showed participants a set of faces distorted in both directions—spherical and bowl-like—and at different levels of distortion, ranging from 10 to 50 percent. Participants rated each image on a scale of 1 to 7 for both normality and attractiveness. Next, for five minutes they were shown a sequence of images much like the animation of Jim above—this set was only distorted in one direction for each participant. Finally, they were shown the whole range of images once again and asked to rate them. This time, the faces that had been distorted as much as 30 or 40 percent were rated as more attractive than any of the other faces. Here’s the graph of normality ratings for a group who had seen the positive (spherical) distortion:


In just five minutes, the perception of attractiveness and normality was changed. Whether the distortion was positive or negative, researchers could easily manipulate participants’ perceptions of beauty.

So where is this adaptation made? Is it done by the eyes themselves, or some early level of vision processing like where we process shapes and edges? Or is it a higher cognitive function, like how we distinguish different species of animal or read a book? Rhodes and her colleagues devised a new experiment to help isolate where it’s taking place. In this experiment, they rotated faces by 45 degrees, so that you’d have to lean your head on its side to make them look right. They devised an even more dramatic distortion, where the eyes were moved apart or together and the nose appropriately narrowed or widened. For the pre-test, the faces were all rotated in one direction, but for the post-test, they were rotated the opposite direction. The results were the same.

Since rotating an image is a relatively high-level cognitive task, the team reasoned that perception of beauty and normality must be an even higher task, something that takes place after images have been rotated.

What’s the use of having our conception of beauty so easily manipulated? Rhodes et al. argue that it’s essential for this trait to be easily changed based on circumstances. After all, if we find ourselves among members of a different race, we may still need to decide who will make the best mate. Typically, those closed to the average will be the healthiest members of a group. This research might also explain how styles can change so rapidly. I wince when I see 1980s pictures of myself wearing thin pink ties and white jackets with the collars up. But clearly back then, I wasn’t seen by others as particularly abnormal or unattractive—if I had been, I wouldn’t have a wife and two kids to show for myself today.

Rhodes, G., Jeffery, L., Watson, T. L., Clifford, C., & Nakayama, K. (2003). Fitting the Mind to the World: Face Adaptation and Attractiveness Aftereffects. Psychological Science, 14(6), 558-566.


  1. #1 Dave Munger
    July 22, 2005

    Yep, it was distorted by 20 percent!

  2. #2 Starra
    July 22, 2005

    Yes, it was distorted.

  3. #3 Starra
    July 22, 2005

    Further, The face just looked off to me. Though, it was very, very close to the first pic. I don’t see how my perception was manipulated.

    Perhaps because I have studied marking the patterns on a person’s face (mental checks of the distance between the eyes, width of the middle face, etc, etc,) that I would notice the distortion.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    July 22, 2005

    My makeshift stimulus probably isn’t the ideal, either. I whipped this up completely, and, so you wouldn’t get bored, it runs for about 1/4 the time of the actual experiment.

  5. #5 Martin Cook
    July 23, 2005

    I was wondering whether spending a lot of time with one person would mean that you become used to seeing one face, and your perception of “average” becomes closer to how that person looks. Could this make you see your spouse, for instance, as more attractive?

    It might also go part of the way to explaining why people go for partners who look similar to their parents, or even partners have similar features to themselves.

  6. #6 Mike Rundle
    July 23, 2005

    Hmm, the last face looked normal to me, but not as normal as the original. I have to hone my eyesight a bit 🙂

    BTW – Just subscribed to your RSS feed a few weeks back and have been enjoying your site ever since. Definitely the most interesting weblog I read everyday (and I read hundreds!)

  7. #7 stephanie
    August 6, 2005

    Well, color me fooled. I saw the distortion happening, but the last image didn’t look distorted to me. I did not think the last picture would be NOT distorted, so I didn’t trust my response, but in all honesty, it didn’t look distorted.


  8. #8 ina
    August 31, 2005

    It is my first time to visit your website and your articles are really interesting. BTW, the last picture of your son didn’t look distorted to me.

    I’m Kristina Mendez from the University of the Philippines and I’m currently starting a research on The Child’s (early childhood) Perception of Beauty. It’s been so hard so I am really needing all the help that I can get. I was wondering if you can send me a couple of links to people or websites who could help me on this thesis.

    Thanks a lot!

  9. #9 9rules Network: Weblog
    September 8, 2005

    […] nce studies, Do babies known if hidden objects are still there?, and my all-time favorite: Can our understanding of ˇ°normalˇ± and ˇ°beautifulˇ± be distorted?. They usually include gr […]

  10. #10 Brian
    October 9, 2005

    Yes, I believe the last photo to be somewhat distorted.

  11. #11 Allie
    October 22, 2005

    I compared the two pictures and was shcoked to see the difference. In the test Icould see no difference

  12. […] We’ve written before on how our perception of faces can be altered. If you look at faces that have been systematically distorted to look bloated or shrunken, eventually you’ll likely believe that those distorted faces are more normal and attractive than undistorted faces. But does the same hold true for body shape? […]

  13. #13 somnilista, FCD
    August 14, 2006

    Who cuts his hair?

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