Click on the image below to be taken to a quicktime movie showing 9 different faces. When the movie is finished playing, drag the slider back and forth to pick the face you think is the most attractive.
The faces are composite images—”average” faces made by morphing together 48 different photos. Previous research has shown that people typically perceive average faces as more beautiful than unusual faces (and here we’ve written about how easy it is to change our conception of “average”). But what about people from different racial groups? Would a Caucasian perceive an “average” South Asian composite face as more or less beautiful than a composite from their own race? The example movie above was made from photos used by Gillian Rhodes and a team of colleagues to try to answer that same question. The first frame in the movie is a “Super-Caucasian” created by exaggerating the features that distinguish Caucasian men from Japanese men by 50 percent. The Caucasian-ness is gradually diminished—the middle frame in the movie a 50 percent Caucasian-Japanese blend, and the final frame is a 50 percent “Super-Japanese.” One quarter of the way through the movie, you see a 100-percent Caucasian composite, and three-quarters of the way through, a 100-percent Japanese composite.
You might expect that Caucasians would prefer the average Caucasian face and Japanese would prefer the Japanese face. But the results found by Rhodes’ team were rather different. They presented cards with each of these images (sorted in a random order) to Caucasian college students. They asked the participants to select the the most attractive card from the stack and rate it for attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. The process was repeated until all cards were rated. Here’s a summary of the results:
While there was a trend, especially among females, to rate the Caucasian male faces as more attractive, the face rated most attractive of all was the combined average of both Caucasian and Japanese faces. When participants rated female faces, the average faces were favored to an even larger degree. What’s going on here? Why should we prefer combined races over those more similar to us?
Rhodes and her team speculated that the preference for composite race faces may be related to health. People of mixed-race ancestry do appear to have a larger variety of genes, and on the the other end of the scale, when close relatives have children together, they are susceptible to a variety of ailments. In a separate experiment, the team examined not only composite faces, but also faces of Eurasian people (adult children of one Asian parent and one Caucasian parent). Again, participants were asked to rate the faces for attractiveness, but they also rated the faces for how “healthy” they appeared. Here are the results for male faces.
The Eurasian faces achieved a whopping advantage over both Caucasian and Asian faces, for both health and attractiveness ratings. Again, similar results were found for female faces. Rhodes et al. argue that this supports their health hypothesis—that humans select mates based on their perceived health level. However, they are also careful to note some potential problems with their research. By using composite faces, they show us faces no real human actually possesses (a separate portion of their experiment used individual faces, and similar results were found, but individual faces offer problems of their own, because participants may be judging other factors such as perceived wealth). Cultural differences such as a tendency not to smile for photos might also play a role. And it’s entirely possible that “health” ratings may simply be an artifact of “attractiveness” ratings—wishful thinking that a pretty face is also a healthy one.
All those caveats aside, the basic finding—that we tend to find both mixed-race composites and actual people of mixed race more attractive—is surprising and interesting on its own.
Did your own result from the quicktime example above match the research findings? Let us know in the comments.
Rhodes, G., Lee, K., Palermo, R., Weiss, M., Yoshikawa, S., Clissa, P., Williams, T., Peters, M., Winkler, C., & Jeffery, L. (2005). Attractiveness of own-race, other-race, and mixed-race faces. Perception, 34, 319-340.