Cognitive Daily

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifIs beauty a universal standard? Or is it in the eye of the beholder? Some research on attractiveness, including some we’ve discussed on CogDaily, suggests that “average” faces are the most attractive, and that most people agree on what makes a pretty face.

i-bac67384e8a9fa8eca298bb2c66b63fb-attract.jpgBut Johannes Hönekopp has recently questioned the statistics behind these studies. Consider a hypothetical study that asks participants to rate the attractiveness of Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney on a scale of 1 to 10. From one perspective, nearly all judges might give both faces extremely high marks. Taken from this point of view, a researcher could argue that there is universal agreement that DiCaprio and Clooney are both attractive. But a closer look at the data would show that some judges consistently prefer DiCaprio over Clooney, while others consistently prefer Clooney. Can we really say that everyone has the same conception of attractiveness?

Hönekopp designed a set of three experiments to explore the relationship between individual preference and group preference (he calls these “private taste” and “group taste”). Each experiment was conducted in a similar manner: volunteers were shown photos of several dozen faces and asked to rate them on a scale of 1 to 7. Then one week later they returned to rate the same photos again (this was done to ensure that individual preferences were relatively consistent).

In Experiment 1, the faces and judges were college-age students. In Experiment 2, Hönekopp wanted a more diverse group, so this time faces and judges were equally distributed among Caucasians, Blacks, and Asians. In experiment three, faces and judges were evenly divided among men and women. In all the experiments, there was a significant correlation between the ratings of all the judges. However, as Hönekopp has argued, this isn’t in itself an indication that there are universal standards for attractiveness.

To further analyze the data, Hönekopp devised a new statistic, which he called the beholder index. In its simplest form, the beholder index is expressed like this:

i-2d16315a83f697729e698708c027986a-attract2.gif

The value of this ratio can range from zero to one — a value of 1 would indicate that all variation in attractiveness ratings are due to individual differences, while a value of 0 would indicate all variation is due to group differences. Next, he divided responses into two groups: the middle-ranked faces (those with rankings closest to average), and the extreme-ranked faces: the top quarter and bottom quarter of the rankings). Here’s what the beholder index looks like for these groups:

i-712598256d7fb71f8ff701016f75c1ae-attract3.gif

Because this is a new statistic, there’s no real way to establish statistical significance, but the trend that’s shown here, with three very different samples and sets of judges, is quite clear: when there is a large difference between the faces being evaluated, then the tastes of the group outweigh individual differences (nearly everyone will rank George Clooney as more attractive than Osama Bin Laden). But when the difference is small, then individual preferences of judges become much more important (there is little agreement over whether Fred Astaire is more attractive than Gene Kelley).

Hönekopp, J. (2006). Once More: Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Relative contributions of private and shared taste to judgments of facial attractiveness. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 32(2), 199-209.

Comments

  1. #1 agnostic
    July 18, 2006

    Sounds like another “They did a study on this?” Almost everyone prefers ice cream over sewage, though you may exclusively prefer tangerine ice cream while I exclusively prefer caramel.

    What would have been even more interesting is if they’d measured individual differences in other variables and seen to what extent they predicted individual differences in facial preference — did the 30 year-olds prefer Clooney and the 20 year-olds Di Caprio? Do extraverts & introverts have different preferences? Neurotics & emotionally stable people? Etc.

  2. #2 SteveA
    July 18, 2006

    I agree with agnostic, I’ve “studied” the patterns my close friends (a group of about 20) show in their concept of beauty and compared them to eachother and my own and have discovered that healthy is the only common feature of beauty. No matter what the shape, color, size, etc. of a persons features are the impression of health given by hygene and skin care are the only commonality.

    In the end, beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, sometimes even to the disgust of friends ;-)

  3. #3 Charles
    July 19, 2006

    In the end, beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, sometimes even to the disgust of friends ;-)

    Good point!!

  4. #4 wamba
    July 19, 2006

    Taken from this point of view, a researcher could argue that there is universal agreement that DiCaprio and Clooney are both attractive. But a closer look at the data would show that some judges consistently prefer DiCaprio over Clooney, while others consistently prefer Clooney. Can we really say that everyone has the same conception of attractiveness?

    Was there a followup study designed to find out how many of those who prefer DiCaprio are bisexual?

  5. #5 Alan Kellogg
    July 23, 2006

    Consider George and Leonardo again. George has a mature face, Leonardo a boyish countenance. It would be instructive to discover age preference among those polled. Who prefers mature men, who prefers boys/younger men, and who of the two each group prefers.

    When doing preference studies like this it’s a good idea to compare objects of generally similar appearance. In this case, mature men or boys. George and Leonardo are simply too dissimilar in appearance for there to be a valid comparison.

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