The Frontal Cortex

The Psychology of Hotness

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.


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    August 30, 2007

    I am a fat, bearded, asymmetrical slob with one ear that sticks out more than the other and a rats nest of messed up hair, and I know it. I have no illusions about my hotness 🙂

  2. #2 Mark P
    August 30, 2007

    I suspect observations like those of McArdle say more about the observer than about people in general. I and most people I know zero in on the imperfections we see in the mirror. I don’t think I know anyone who walks away from a mirror exclaiming about how hot he or she is.

  3. #3 MattXIV
    August 30, 2007

    I don’t think the two behaviors are mutually exclusive. I behave similarly when looking at myself in the mirror, but I can’t deny that even at the same lighting and angle the “live” version of my face looks distinctly better than a digital still photo of it. While we may notice our flaws, the idealized self-image we are comparing ourselves against (the one without the pimple, double chin, untaimed hair, etc) is probably not as attractive as it appears when we think of it.

  4. #4 agnostic
    August 30, 2007

    You’re right that it probably has most to do with insecurity, and that’s a facet of the personality trait Neuroticism, which women score more highly on than men (on average) across cultures (it shows the 2nd-largest sex difference, after Agreeableness).

    That’s why women are more likely to fuss about their appearance: they fixate on what’s wrong, and that’s the first step toward fixing the problem. With lower mean levels of Neuroticism, it’s somewhat understandable that lots of guys leave the house looking like they just got into a back-alley brawl with a kangaroo and a grizzly bear.

    As for self-delusion not being adaptive — guess again. Well, since there’s variation, we know there must be multiple “peaks,” so some can be self-deluded and it serves some purpose for them, while being truthful works for others. Why would it pay to be self-deluded? Confidence!

    Now, you can’t get too carried away, of course, but which guy is going to impress girls more: the 7 who thinks & acts as if he were a 6, or the 7 who acts and behaves as if he were an 8? Or which tribal chief / CEO / etc. is going to inspire greater confidence among his subordinates: the self-assured, confident one, or the equally qualified and capable one who is more plagued by self-doubt? In other words, natural selection doesn’t necessarily reward being correct or close to the truth — just what makes it easier to survive and reproduce.

  5. #5 Zachary Tong
    August 30, 2007

    I have always felt that self-confidence is a tricky slope to walk. While a 7 acting like an 8 may be looked upon favorably by the opposite sex, I’ve always had the nagging feeling that a 7 accidently acting as a 9 will be seen negatively.

    Does anyone else feel that overconfidence could be seen as delusion? Its almost as if every individual has a sliding scale they can move around in, a little up or down from their actual “value”. But step too far and the results are highly negative.

    Or maybe I’m just not confident enough 😛

  6. #6 Luna_the_cat
    August 30, 2007

    Confidence based on nothing at all worked out very well for Bush around election time. It took time for the sheer disastrousness of the “based on nothing” part to sink in to a large percentage of the population, and there is still the hardcore who think he walks on water because HE thinks he walks on water.

    Self-delusion can be very adaptive in a number of situations. I think agnostic has hit it spot on.

  7. #7 Daniel
    August 30, 2007

    When I look at myself in the mirror, I fixate on my imperfections, and it is difficult for me to see my “true self.” When other people look at you, they see all of you, how you look, move, act, smile, and speak; and they also hear what you say, and how you say it, and that all goes into how you look to others. When you like someone enough to be around them, the perception of how they look fades, and become less important. That is why you still have friends, even when you get old and wrinkled, and that is why old people go out together, and even get married. And that is why even “ugly” people manage to hook-up, get married, and have children.

    I have a friend who had some cosmetic surgery on his nose and chin. He wanted to know how he looked. I couldn’t really tell much difference; I started to say that. But then, I realized, he has spent alot of money and gone through alot of pain for this, so I told him he looked great.

  8. #8 katherine sharpe
    August 30, 2007

    I think your last thought may be right. There is a restaurant here in NYC with a mirror in the bathroom that’s strangely beveled and jointed so that it gives you a reflection that’s NOT flipped, i.e. not a ‘mirror image’ in that sense. It’s fascinating but horrifying to look into — it makes one feel backwards, crooked, awkward to say the least.

  9. #9 donviti
    August 30, 2007

    for those of us that are balding, I can surely say that we have a percieved view of ourselves, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

  10. #10 Anne-Marie
    August 30, 2007

    Have there been many studies on our perceptions of attractiveness in a 2-D format (aka a photo) versus seeing someone in ‘real life’? Also, it would be interesting to see research related to this on whether someone perceives the same level of attractiveness in a photo/live viewing session of members of the opposite (or same, really) sex. Basically, if I think I look better in the mirror than in a picture, do I also think someone else looks better in life than in a snapshot? (Not including all the massively touched-up pictures in magazines!)

  11. #11 Yttrai
    August 30, 2007

    I have come to grips with the fact that i photograph like a dying wildebeast, yet people tell me lately that i’m relatively attractive. I still don’t believe them 😀 but i understand how photographs do not capture a person correctly.

    “You’re also biased by the fact that no one ever tells you you’re ugly. ”

    Um, this i take issue with. As adults this is rarely heard, but all through school, including college and grad school, this message was sent to me a lot. I can’t seriously be the only one?

  12. #12 Anna
    August 30, 2007

    Never been good in photographs. Or mirrors. Now what?

  13. #13 Minus-the-Tea
    August 30, 2007

    I feel repulsed by most photographs that have been taken of me. My repulsion doesn’t come from thinking that I look ugly, but that I look weird–not myself somehow.

    I’m picky about how I look in mirrors, which is why I have a long distance relationship with them. I’m much more forgiving about how other people look to be honest. I’ve been around people describing others as ugly or unattractive and I always seem to be the dissenting voice in the group. I don’t really look for the best in people–tending toward cynicism–so I guess there’s a contradiction there.

  14. #14 Marie-Anne
    August 31, 2007

    I’ve read the article with great interest, because I tend to have a few insecurities regarding my apparence. But there are some aspects in the comments I have trouble with, but the ideas are interesting. the thing I have troble with is the idea of self-rating being acurate. If we tend, when looking in a mirror, to focus on imperfections, how can we surely assume we are a 7, or whatever the score, and after that, acting higher than we value to get more from life?

  15. #15 t
    August 31, 2007

    She’s lucky. I have been frankly told I’m ugly. But like that little town where we are all above average, I grade myself generously on appearance. I do because I know self-confidence is an extremely important aspect of the impression we make.

    Also appearance and especially hotness isn’t solely the physical form but has something to do with the pride and energy with which people carry themselves and the level and kind of eye contact they make with others. If I let the image in the mirror or *shudder* photograph decide, I’d probably flinch from contact and slink off into the shadows. But to grease the wheels of social and professional success I tell myself I’m more attractive than I believe am. I don’t deep down believe a word, but keeping up the illusion at least in selected situations helps. It increases my options, helps performance, and actually improves how I treat others, as I am able to work on setting them at ease instead of fixating on my own shortcomings.

  16. #16 Lizzie
    September 1, 2007

    I consider photography an untrustworthy medium for representing “reality”. I am consistently disappointed, not just with my own face, but everyone else who I photograph. This even holds true for things I’ve designed and tried to capture on film. Almost always a disappointment.

  17. #17 thousand-faces
    September 2, 2007

    All I can say is both mirror and photos can be deceiving in the sense of showing who you really are. Sometimes looking in the mirror I see no flaws while other times I see nothing but flaws and same goes for the photos. Pictures/looking in the mirror is like our mood swings, it is never the same:). So when a picture/mirror makes me ‘think’ I look better than I am I don’t mind, I enjoy it:D. On other days when it is the opposite well then one tends to make a trip to the market and get the best media suggested problem solvers!

  18. #18 kevin
    September 3, 2007

    Jonah is kind of hot, hence has no credibility in his criticisms.
    Sorry mate.
    Great site though, keep up the good work.

  19. #19 limes
    September 4, 2007

    Perhaps it’s because photos tend to favour and bring out the orange in the picture? I know most photos of me give me a cancer tan that I definitely do not have in real life.

  20. #20 Byzanteen
    September 6, 2007

    In all objectivity, I look pretty darn good.

  21. #21 Jon H
    September 13, 2007

    “There is a restaurant here in NYC with a mirror in the bathroom that’s strangely beveled and jointed ”

    There is a company that sells those, at

    (I’ve no connection to them, but I considered buying one if I had a few hundred bucks to spend. It can’t hurt to be able to style your hair in the way that looks best to *other* people.)

  22. #22 Leni
    September 16, 2007

    Oh depressing! So you’re saying as bad as it is, it’s even worse?? I’m clinging to my delusions!

    I think I look better than I do partly because the light in my bathroom is so wondrously forgiving. It’s like how an overexposed photo makes all your imperfections disappear. I just look better in my own bathroom than I do anywhere else in the world.

    But I am treated to an absolutely horrifying experience anytime I see myself out in the daylight, passing a shop window or something. Or at work under the terrible, unforgiving glare of the fluorescent lights (or whatever the hell those evil things are.) Hey, at least I know what I’ll look like if I ever become a zombie! No surprises there!

    Also, I think it might in part be that I forget how old and hideous I’ve become because I still feel like that pretty hot, 120 pound, size 6 22 year old. 12 years (and what feels like several hundred pounds!) later on the outside, pretty much the same on the inside… it’s a constant shock. But I don’t want to give my encroaching demise into old age, saggy boobs and irreversible ugliness any help so I refuse to acknowledge its existence!

    It’s just easier to get through the day.

  23. #23 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 17, 2007

    For the first time — and it’s disturbing to consider all the others — I actually like the way that I look in the Driver’s License for which I was photographed about a fortnight ago. The photo clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles cracked a joke just before the flash, and I am in a surprised but genuine hearty laugh.

  24. #24 David Harmon
    September 17, 2007

    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.

    Whether a given person focuses on their “best view” or their imperfections, will depend on their personality and temperament! Either way, a sudden glimpse of your reflection is likely to be startlingly different from what you expected.

    That said, I just went through an example of that “random slice” business — I joined the clan for family portraits on behalf of my stepfather. Choosing among the (digital) images was quite an experience — trying to get shots were none of the kids (or adults) had screwy expressions, etc. Obviously, we skipped the shots where the birthday “boy” was hamming it up, or looked grumpy, in favor of those where he looked like a classic Grandpa. AFAIK, nobody even mentioned “touching up” or splicing the shots, but we ended up with some gorgeous pics anyway. (For the record, this was at a Sears in Charlottesville, VA.)

  25. #25 David Harmon
    September 17, 2007

    Whoops, the second paragraph of my last note should have been italicized, as part of the quote. My text starts with “Whether…”

  26. #26 Patrick
    September 17, 2007

    “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in proportion.”

    Francis Bacon

    I eagerly await the TV reality show “So You Think You’re Ugly?”

  27. #27 inkgddss
    September 28, 2007

    The only time I’m hot is when I have managed to set off the smoke detector, again, for burning something in the kitchen, or when I have the flu. Thanks be to the Universe that ugly is all inclusive and beauty a fleeting figment of a stye caught in your eye. Pretty soon the hot flashes will increase my hotness by tenfold!

  28. #28 Laura
    October 4, 2007

    My first comment, taken by Agnostic: self-confidence. Many use the mirror as a check or reassurance that they look good, turning away when they’re satisfied (I admit to being one of these). It’s dangerous to spend too much time staring at yourself dwelling on the imperfections.

    And also, Jonathan: reality is “natural”. Few people look good in a forced smile. Your face is the most expressive part of your body and really does convey how you feel. This is why attitude has a huge impact on overall “hotness”.

  29. #29 jen_m
    October 5, 2007

    Unposed photographs often capture me with my mouth partway open and my eyes shut. Although I grant both of these conditions hold for much of the time (especially the flapping of my yap), they are rarely sustained in my waking hours. A photograph captures a moment and extends it, whereas a mirror-image captures real-time. I do not think my average attractiveness is captured in photographs because most perceivers unconsciously edit out the eyeblinks and open mouths, and adjust their image of me accordingly; permanent images do not do us the same favor, and so distort the attractiveness others may perceive.

  30. #30 Anton Mates
    October 6, 2007

    You’re also biased by the fact that no one ever tells you you’re ugly.

    Damn, I wish I’d gone to her junior high school.

  31. #31 Trevor Murray
    October 6, 2007

    Another factor of the mirror is you can regulate you facial expression for improved attractiveness(as you see it)based on feedback from that mirror image. This is something you simply cannot do accurately when you can’t see your own face.

  32. #32 Sue
    January 2, 2008

    Go online to find out current home values, but not necessarily to find a listing agent. For that they rely on more �tradtional� methods such as referrals from family and friends.

  33. #33 jim
    October 12, 2011

    Thanks for helping out, good information.

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