Guys on dates want to know: Is it really impossible to ignore an attractive face?

ResearchBlogging.orgJoe and Michelle are having dinner at a romantic restaurant. It's their first anniversary, and everything is perfect -- until an attractive woman walks past the table. Michelle notices that Joe casts a quick glance at the woman. Michelle flashes an annoyed glare at Joe, who knows he's in trouble. "I didn't mean to look at her," he pleads, "guys just can't help it when a pretty woman walks by." Michelle gasps. "B-but she's not as pretty as you," Joe stammers, unpersuasively.

Is it really true that we can't help looking at a pretty face? There's a lot of research suggesting that we notice attractive faces quicker than others, and that we look at them longer than unattractive faces. But fewer studies have considered how distracting attractive faces are when we are focused on a different task.

Here's an example. In the following movie you'll see an arrow (actually a < or > sign), followed by a grid of symbols like this, to the side of the screen where the arrow is pointing.


Your job is to ignore the image on the other side of the screen (either a blank square or a face) and judge whether the T in the middle of the grid is upright or upside-down. Give it a shot -- you'll get four tries. Watch carefully, the images flash by quickly!

Click here to play movie (QuickTime required)

It's a difficult task, and you might have to play the movie a few times, but when you get the hang of it, you'll find you can actually be quite accurate -- even when the distracting image is a face (I'll let you be the judge of which face was more attractive). Jie Sui and Chang Hong Liu showed hundreds of movies like this to 40 University students. The question, of course, is whether more attractive faces are more distracting than less-attractive faces, so the researchers chose 164 faces that had been rated as very attractive or very unattractive by a different group of students. The faces were randomly placed in the videos as distractors from the primary task of judging whether the center T was right-side-up or upside-down. The students were told to ignore the faces and focus just on the symbols. How did they do? Here are the results:


The reaction times were significantly longer when the distractor was an attractive face compared to when it was either an unattractive face or an empty box. There was no significant different in reaction time between the unattractive face and the box. In this experiment (and my sample movie), the faces and symbols were shown for just 200 milliseconds.

While this effect may not seem very dramatic, it's important to remember that most of the reaction time is fixed by the physical limitations of how quickly our brain can respond to any visual image and direct our body to respond. As a portion of the time we spend actually deciding whether the T is inverted, a 10 millisecond difference is a long time.

The researchers also sometimes had the arrow misdirect the students toward the distracting face/box -- still asking them if the T was upside-down. In this scenario, facial attractiveness didn't matter, but both faces were more distracting than the box.

In a second experiment, the researchers flashed the faces for only 100 milliseconds. They found the same effect, but only when faces appeared on the left (for a possible explanation of this, you might take a look at this study, which we discuss in more detail in this month's Cognitive Monthly). They also measured eye movement, and found no relationship between where the eyes moved and the effect. This makes sense because the images flash by faster than the eyes are physically capable of responding.

Sui and Liu say this research demonstrates that attractive faces can distract us from tasks even outside of social contexts. They did not find a sex difference in response -- the faces they used were evenly divided between sexes, and they found the effect with both male and female participants.

So Joe might be right that it's not possible for him to focus all his attention on Michelle, even on their anniversary. Perhaps next time he should consider cooking her dinner at home!

Sui, J., & Liu, C. (2009). Can beauty be ignored? Effects of facial attractiveness on covert attention Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16 (2), 276-281 DOI: 10.3758/PBR.16.2.276

More like this

Last week, we asked our readers whether certain characters or "stories" were sexist. I said that the survey was inspired by the story I had told the previous day: Joe and Michelle are having dinner at a romantic restaurant. It's their first anniversary, and everything is perfect -- until an…
How many of these faces can you recognize? Even though these are extremely famous individuals, it's unlikely that you'll be able to identify all four of them, because the pictures were taken early in life, before they became famous. But give it your best shot and try to name them in the comments.…
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…
Do you recognize the faces in this picture? Sure you do -- you could recognize the authors of this blog anywhere, even upside-down. It might take you just a bit longer to realize that something isn't quite right with the picture. I'll show you what the problem is at the end of this post. We've…

Now, let's not make judgments about Joe and Michelle's relationship. Would Michelle be overreacting if Joe had cheated on her three months previous?

[Dave wonders to self: what is this, a science blog or a soap opera?]

I have this problem while driving. If a pretty girl is walking down the street, it's just impossible not to take a look, even if it's a high-speed life-or-death situation. They should invent windshields that automatically block the faces of anyone over an 8.

Agree (to an extent) with Mr. Gunn (Peter?).

I guess I'm lucky. My current GF sometimes *asks* me what I think of other women we see when out. I ask her about other guys. We have fun with it, and sometimes get fairly explicit about what we would like to do with the targeted individual, and then we go home and screw like weasels. People need to be more easy going about things like this.

huh, what if this is the reason symmetry is attractive. We know that 'attractive' faces tend to be symmetrical. What if the term 'attractive' isn't just a methaphor.

It makes sense that a symmetrical face would be easier to process as a face than a non-symmetrical one (just look at a Picaso), and all faces naturally 'attract' attention. Symmetrical faces, because they are more easy to perceive, might attract attention more strongly. Because our attention is drawn to them, we come up with a post-hock answer of 'they are pretty'.

I think this kind of thing would allow some easy unification of different forms of attraction. Why women tend to care more about personality than men, why people can become more or less attractive the longer you know them, etc. All of these things are mediated simply through attention, and the 'pretty/ugly' dichotomy is just a rationalization.

probably crazy, but that's what blog comments are for right?

Hm, reaction time changed.. what about accuracy? Were people just as accurate just slower? Or was there no difference?

A request: please don't use QuickTime videos. As a non-Mac user, I've always found QuickTime to be a pain, and so I don't see any of the QuickTime videos you post.

How about just Flash?

@Kevin H - Actually, more recent research on attraction has shown that symmetry is NOT in fact that major component in attractiveness. It's actually averageness. If you take a bunch of faces and use the averages of the different feature dimensions to create a new face, that new face is rated is significantly more attractive than one with symmetrical features.

You wrote that the difference in reaction time was 'significant'. Although relevant, significance is not the most important statistic result from experimental research. It is possible to qualify any group difference as statistically significant, if you choose a large enough sample of observations.

Therefore, I reccommend that whenever you write that groups differences are statistically significant, you add the effect size (according to Cohen).

I believe the effect size in this experiment is particularly low, based on my guess as concerns the standard deviation of the measures (which you also neglect to mention). A differenc in mean reaction time of only 10 milliseconds is even smaller in the perspective of a (pooled) standard deviation of 50 or more milliseconds.

By Hannes Minkema (not verified) on 07 May 2009 #permalink

Would it be possible for you to offer future videos in formats other than quicktime? There's various free apps out there that convert videos, and it'd be helpful if other formats were offered, if it isn't too inconvenient for you guys to do so, anyways.

Guys can and regularly do fail to notice a pretty face. Usually that is because the face is set above some well exhibited cleavage.

@JLK hmm, didn't know that. Although it seems to me the two would be highly correlated. I can't imagine creating a merged image of 100-200 people and not having it be symmetrical.

However, the argument still stands, if slightly modified. Average faces should also be at the center of the 'tuning curve' for face perception, and therefore might give a stronger face signal that other faces.

Aha! I am justified!

I recall reading a study which claimed that after watching a news broadcast given by a young pretty faced woman men recall much less of the actual content of the news than when it is given by a man or plainer woman.

And as for the Italian female naked weather forecasters well forget knowing whether you need that brolly or now :/

Neat study but the Joe and Michelle story really sucks! Did we have to go with such unflattering and sexist stereotypes?

You can replace attractive faces with iPhones or similar gadgets, or bigs wads of money, or some delicious meal, or a cute pet or quiet baby. People get distracted. It's only when they get distracted by things like attractive faces that others notice.

Think of the last meal you had with someone. How many times did they glance away at something else, excluding any models that passed by. If the answer is zero or a very small number, then do you mean to say that you held their rapt and undivided attention for 20+ minutes?

By ObsessiveMathsFreak (not verified) on 08 May 2009 #permalink

Seriously: If you're sufficiently attracted to a person to want to be married to that person, it means you're capable of being very strongly attracted to people of that sex. Why should anyone, male or female, het or otherwise, be offended when his or her mate notices that someone else is attractive?

I'm emphatically not referring to people who play head games by making unflattering comparisons of the SO to someone else -- just the idea that we all look, and that doesn't mean we touch.

There's another possibility: Humans glance at everyone who walks by. But we only notice our partner's glance when it is at a potential rival. Joe glances at the guy with the really bad toupee, but Michelle doesn't notice because he is not a rival. Same when Joe glances at the waiter to see if their food is coming. Joe doesn't notice if Michelle glances when a woman in a bright red coat who just came in. But he does notice when she looks at the hunk who walks by.

The flaw in this, as others have mentioned, is that it's not the face. (Nor, at least in my case, is it the cleavage.) If, as in this scenario, I'm distracted by a person, male or female, walking by, I'll take in a great many details - general body shape, position, manner of movement, etc - and may well redirect attention away long before ever looking at the face.

Rachael: ...Joe and Michelle story really sucks! Did we have to go with such unflattering and sexist stereotypes?"

Maybe someone here can help me with this.
What exactly is sexist about this story?

I hope that bar graph is not representative of the study. If it is, then we can't conclude anything, since there is no indication of variability. Speculating about Joe and Michelle is even more absurd.

Please, at least try to blog about real science.

Jacko, I suspect that in the actual paper the graphs do have error bars on them and statistics to back up the claim. I'd look but it's behind a paywall and I'm not at work right now. And Joe and Michelle are an example of where this effect might actually happen, and why it's an interesting thing to investigate.

Science is about explaining things that happen in the world. On that basis this is about as close to real science as you can get. :-)


I am a neuroscientist, yet have never heard of the journal. My library also no longer carries a subscription, and I do not work at any sort of rinky-dink place. So the idea of the original paper not having error bars seems reasonable. There are a lot of crummy 'journals' out there, and I have seen plenty of stupid crap appear in print.

If the error bars were on the original graph, then I guess I have a question for our hosts: Why would you recreate a graph and leave out the error bars? Indeed, if all you want to discuss is three numbers, then why have a graph at all?

Jacko, what, you haven't heard of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review? You kidding me?

Re: your comment on error bars: I reflexively feel the bar graph looks "naked" without its error bars. There's an instant error signal in my brain as soon as I see that in a bar chart that isn't, say, made of tiny height-proportional drawings of famous skyscrapers in USA Today. I always thought the bloggers were purposefully chopping them off for presentation's sake. For my part, I want 'em on.

I think it's legit to have a bar graph for 3 numbers, even 2 numbers.

I guess it's just not quite my field, cm. Which is why I'm here.

Still, ya gotta have error bars, or it's impossible to take any 'data' seriously.

How about just Flash?

For about two years I ran two browsers - one with flash disabled, and the other with flash enabled. The flash-disabled browser crashed about once every 3-4 months. The flash-enabled browser crashed about twice a day. That's what flash does - makes crashes about 200 times more frequent. It's buggy, it's unreliable, and it's garbage.

Now I block all flash. No exceptions.

Did anyone else notice that they were expecting the sign to appear on the right side after it did so the first two times? That caught me off guard so I wasn't sure if it was the attractive face or just me looking in the wrong place that slowed my reaction time.

I ( and most men I know) actively seek out attractive faces - and using an iPhone I can't see QuickTime videos either

By PeterWood (not verified) on 10 May 2009 #permalink

Re: Flash video --

I try to use YouTube or Vimeo for video whenever possible, but in this case, when images flash by very quickly, that doesn't work -- the compression algorithms they use end up deleting key details from the movies. Sorry not everyone can see QuickTime.

But if by Flash video you mean something different, let me know what you're talking about and I'll look into it.

@JLK - The current evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that symmetry is attractive (Hume & Montgomerie 2001; Jones et al. 2001; Little et al. 2001; Perrett et al. 1999; Rhodes et al. 1998). This effect holds across cultures (Little et al. 2007; Rhodes et al. 2001) and species (Waitt & Little 2006). Itâs certainly true that the effects of symmetry may be confounded with those of averageness; an average face is by definition more likely to be symmetrical. But itâs also true that symmetry remains attractive even when controls are made for averageness (Jones et al. 2007; Rhodes et al. 1999). Symmetry is, therefore, an independent predictor of attractiveness.

Hume, D. K. & Montgomerie, R. 2001 Facial attractiveness signals different aspects of âqualityâ in women and men. Evolution and Human Behavior 22, 93-112.

Jones, B. C., DeBruine, L. M. & Little, A. C. 2007 The role of symmetry in attraction to average faces. Perception & Psychophysics 69, 1273-1277.

Jones, B. C., Little, A. C., Penton-Voak, I. S., Tiddeman, B. P., Burt, D. M. & Perrett, D. I. 2001 Measured facial asymmetry and perceptual judgements of attractiveness and health. Evolution and Human Behavior 22, 417-429.

Little, A. C., Apicella, C. L. & Marlowe, F. W. 2007 Preferences for symmetry in human faces in two cultures: data from the UK and the Hadza, an isolated group of hunter-gatherers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 274, 3113-3117. (doi:10.1098/rspb.2007.0895)

Little, A. C., Burt, D. M., Penton-Voak, I. S. & Perrett, D. I. 2001 Self-perceived attractiveness influences human female preferences for sexual dimorphism and symmetry in male faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 268, 39-44. (doi:10.1098/rspb.2000.1327)

Perrett, D. I., Burt, D. M., Penton-Voak, I. S., Lee, K. J., Rowland, D. A. & Edwards, R. 1999 Symmetry and human facial attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behavior 20, 295-307. (doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(99)00014-8)

Rhodes, G., Proffitt, F., Grady, J. & Sumich, A. 1998 Facial symmetry and the perception of beauty. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 5, 659-669.

Rhodes, G., Sumich, A. & Byatt, G. 1999 Are average facial configurations attractive only because of their symmetry? Psychological Science 10, 52-58.

Rhodes, G., Yoshikawa, S., Clark, A., Lee, K., McKay, R. & Akamatsu, S. 2001 Attractiveness of facial averageness and symmetry in non-Western cultures: In search of biologically based standards of beauty. Perception 30, 611-625. (doi:10.1068/p3123)

Waitt, C. & Little, A. C. 2006 Preferences for symmetry in conspecific facial shape among Macaca mulatta. International Journal of Primatology 27, 133-145. (doi:10.1007/s10764-005-9015-y)

*They did not find a sex difference in response -- the faces they used were evenly divided between sexes, and they found the effect with both male and female participants.*
Does it mean that attractive females can distract other females and the same refers to male?

As far as facial characteristics are concerned, I am just guessing but it appears to me that for some men, women who have faces that are closer to those found in young children with their gracile features (rounder face shape, higher forehead, rounder gracile chin and jaw, gracile bones, large eyes) are more attractive than elongated, narrow faces, with longer jaws and prominent chins). The type of women who have the former gracile features tend to be those who mature earlier and stop growing earlier, hence locking in a more "child-like" face.