Here’s Megan McArdle on our self-perceptions of attractiveness:
A late night conversation last night brought me to the inescapable conclusion that neither I, nor anyone else, is as hot as they think they are.
You hate photographs of yourself, don’t you? A tiny minority of people are terribly photogenic (I recall one girl in high school who was maybe a 7 in person, but a 9.75 in an 8X10 glossy) and like having their pictures taken; everyone else in the world is convinced that they don’t photograph particularly well.
A cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago explained why to me last winter. When we look at ourselves in the mirror, in any given session we tend to anchor on the time slice image that makes us look our best. That, we decide, is the “real” us.
Photographs, however, are a random sample of the various arrangements of light, angle, and facial expression that we can be found in. The median photograph of you is probably the best approximation of your physical attractiveness. But that wars with your self image, which is anchored on other, better combinations.
You’re also biased by the fact that no one ever tells you you’re ugly. It’s not merely that people inflate what they tell you (they almost certainly do); it’s also that people who think you’re ugly tend to drop out of the sample. They may not cultivate an acquaintance with you, and those that do will probably not spontaneously let you know that they find you kind of repulsive.
You’re stuck in a web of congitive biases and a positive feedback loop. It’s a wonder anyone does get married.
This is some pithy logic, but I’m not sure it really applies to most people. Personally, I’m acutely aware of my superficial imperfections. If there’s a pimple (or two) on my face, I feel like I’m wearing a flashing neon sign. I get frustrated by my unruly hair, and wish I wasn’t so skinny. When I stare in the mirror*, I don’t think “Gosh, I’m gorgeous,” or fixate on the angle that makes me look best. I’m looking at my flaws, and am probably busy trying to get the chicken in the back of my hair to stay down.
Of course, it’s possible that different people just have different reactions to their own image. But if I were a betting man, I’d wager that insecurity was dominant. From the perspective of evolution, it’s not particularly useful to have a deluded and inflated self-perception of your own hotness.
*Speaking of mirrors vs. photographs, I’ve often wondered if our dislike of photographs is due to the fact that we are used to seeing mirror images of our own face and not, as McArdle claims, that we overestimate our attractiveness. In other words, our self-image is actually flipped, and so when we look at photographs we are rudely surprised by our actual visage.