How long does it take to decide if someone’s attractive? It might be before you even know you looked.
Researchers can use a masking technique to show an image of a human face subliminally — without the observer being aware of seeing it. To do it, they first show a scrambled face (39 milliseconds). Next, the face itself (13 milliseconds), a blank screen (13 milliseconds), and a cartoon face (39 milliseconds). I’ve tried to duplicate the technique using an animated GIF file, but I think it’s beyond the capability of an ordinary web browser.
Did you see a human face? I had no trouble recognizing my son Jim in the animation, but you might be less aware of the image.
But Ingrid Olson and Christy Marsheutz were able to effectively mask images in the laboratory to try to measure how quickly humans can judge attractiveness. How did they do it?
They found 40 attractive and 40 unattractive faces from highschool yearbooks. A separate panel of observers rated the faces on a scale of 1 to 10, and the average rating of the attractive faces was 7.44, while the unattractive faces averaged just 2.45. Next, they showed these faces to a new group of observers using the masking technique I described above. None of the observers reported being aware of seeing a face at all, but the experimenter asked them to make their “best guess” about the attractiveness of the face. Attractive faces rated a 5.79 on average, while unattractive faces were rated significantly lower: 4.71, on average. So after seeing faces for only 13 milliseconds, we are still able to make reliable judgments about attractiveness.
Does this ability have any effect on our behavior? In a second experiment, attractive or unattractive faces were flashed for 13 milliseconds, followed by either a positive word (“laughter”) or a negative word (“crying”). Observers were told to ignore the face and simply judge whether the word was “good” or “bad.” For good words, reaction times were significantly faster when observers had seen attractive faces beforehand.
So does this effect only apply to facial attractiveness, or does attractiveness of other items affect us the same way? In a new experiment, Olson and Marsheutz found 40 attractive and 40 unattractive houses from real estate listings. Again, independent observers agreed with their assessment, with the “attractive” houses rating 8.03 on average and “unattractive” houses rating only 2.2. They repeated the word evaluation task with a new set of observers who saw both faces and houses, after seeing each for just 13 milliseconds. Here are the results:
For identifying good words, reaction times were significantly faster after viewing attractive faces compared to unattractive faces, whereas there was no comparable effect for identifying good words after seeing houses. One possible explanation for this difference is that humans have a specialized mechanism for identifying attractive faces — that we’re slower at judging houses than faces.
Regardless of the cause, evidence abounds that attractive people receive preferential treatment — they’re more likely to be hired, more likely to be viewed as intelligent, more likely to be seen as good teachers. And the judgement that makes all this preferential treatment possible can be made in, literally, the blink of an eye.
Olson, I.R., & Marshuetz, C. (2005). Facial attractiveness is appraised in a glance. Emotion, 5(4), 498-502.