W.P. Norton

What’s sexy? Depends who’s looking

In W.P. Norton on October 3, 2015 at 6:57 am

By W.P. Norton

for Science Recorder

A new study could be good news for those who feel they were born as something less than a winner in the genetic lottery of hotness. Olichel / Pixabay

When it comes to our standards of beauty, the laws of human attraction are driven more by our unique life stories than our genes, says a new study led by Harvard University and Wellesley College experts.

The study, published in the journal Cell Biology, could be good news for those who feel they were born as something less than a winner in the genetic lottery of sexy, at least when looking at the human face.

In fact, the life experience of the one who is doing the looking is a major determinant of how attractive a given face will be perceived, says the study, which is based on data from hundreds of identical and non-identical twin pairs who rated multiple images of male and female faces. (You can take the 50-face version of the test on Rate That Face.)

“We estimate that an individual’s aesthetic preferences for faces agree about 50 percent, and disagree about 50 percent, with others,” project co-leaders Laura Germine of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, and Jeremy Wilmer of Wellesley College said in a statement.

The researchers asked participants to rate computer images of male and female faces on a 1-to-7 scale, with 7 being the most attractive. To account for genetic factors influencing people’s perceptions of good-lookingness, the researchers used 547 identical twin pairs and 214 same-sex nonidentical twin pairs.

Contrary to expectations that identical twins would have shared perceptions of comeliness and fraternal twins less so, participants agreed on whether a face was attractive or not only about half the time.

The reason that opinions differ so wildly on what makes a face attractive, the authors say, stems from each person’s unique life story—on memories of the face of a first boyfriend or girlfriend, movie stars seen during childhood, or the look of a favorite teacher.

The study also confirms that some factors, like vertical facial symmetry, make a person appealing to pretty much everybody. A host of other characteristics, however, are considered attractive or not based on each observer’s unique experiences. So, the majority of folks whose looks fall short of fashion and film industry standards can take heart: beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.


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