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.