More attractive people elicit more positive first impressions. This effect is called the attractiveness halo, and it is shown when judging those with more attractive faces, bodies, or voices. Moreover, it yields significant social outcomes, including advantages to attractive people in domains as far-reaching as romance, friendships, family relations, education, work, and criminal justice. Physical qualities that increase attractiveness include youthfulness, symmetry, averageness, masculinity in men, and femininity in women. Positive expressions and behaviors also raise evaluations of a person’s attractiveness. Cultural, cognitive, evolutionary, and overgeneralization explanations have been offered to explain why we find certain people attractive. Whereas the evolutionary explanation predicts that the impressions associated with the halo effect will be accurate, the other explanations do not. Although the research evidence does show some accuracy, it is too weak to satisfactorily account for the positive responses shown to more attractive people.
- Learn the advantages of attractiveness in social situations.
- Know what features are associated with facial, body, and vocal attractiveness.
- Understand the universality and cultural variation in attractiveness.
- Learn about the mechanisms proposed to explain positive responses to attractiveness.
We are ambivalent about attractiveness. We are enjoined not to “judge a book by its cover,” and told that “beauty is only skin deep.” Just as these warnings indicate, our natural tendency is to judge people by their appearance and to prefer those who are beautiful. The attractiveness of peoples’ faces, as well as their bodies and voices, not only influences our choice of romantic partners, but also our impressions of people’s traits and important social outcomes in areas that have nothing to do with romance. This module reviews these effects of attractiveness and examines what physical qualities increase attractiveness and why.
The Advantages of Attractiveness
Attractiveness is an asset. Although it may be no surprise that attractiveness is important in romantic settings, its benefits are found in many other social domains. More attractive people are perceived more positively on a wide variety of traits, being seen as more intelligent, healthy, trustworthy, and sociable. Although facial attractiveness has received the most research attention (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991), people higher in body or vocal attractiveness also create more positive impressions (Riggio, Widaman, Tucker, & Salinas, 1991; Zuckerman & Driver, 1989). This advantage is termed the attractiveness halo effect, and it is widespread. Not only are attractive adults judged more positively than their less attractive peers, but even attractive babies are viewed more positively by their own parents, and strangers consider them more healthy, affectionate, attached to mother, cheerful, responsive, likeable, and smart (Langlois et al., 2000). Teachers not only like attractive children better but also perceive them as less likely to misbehave, more intelligent, and even more likely to get advanced degrees. More positive impressions of those judged facially attractive are shown across many cultures, even within an isolated indigenous tribe in the Bolivian rainforest (Zebrowitz et al., 2012).
Attractiveness not only elicits positive trait impressions, but it also provides advantages in a wide variety of social situations. In a classic study, attractiveness, rather than measures of personality or intelligence, predicted whether individuals randomly paired on a blind date wanted to contact their partner again (Walster, Aronson, Abrahams, & Rottman, 1966). Although attractiveness has a greater influence on men’s romantic preferences than women’s (Feingold, 1990), it has significant effects for both sexes. Attractive men and women become sexually active earlier than their less attractive peers. Also, attractiveness in men is positively related to the number of short-term, but not long-term, sexual partners, whereas the reverse is true for women (Rhodes, Simmons, & Peters, 2005). These results suggest that attractiveness in both sexes is associated with greater reproductive success, since success for men depends more on short-term mating opportunities—more mates increases the probability of offspring—and success for women depends more on long-term mating opportunities—a committed mate increases the probability of offspring survival. Of course, not everyone can win the most attractive mate, and research shows a “matching” effect. More attractive people expect to date individuals higher in attractiveness than do unattractive people (Montoya, 2008), and actual romantic couples are similar in attractiveness (Feingold, 1988). The appeal of attractive people extends to platonic friendships. More attractive people are more popular with their peers, and this is shown even in early childhood (Langlois et al., 2000).
The attractiveness halo is also found in situations where one would not expect it to make such a difference. For example, research has shown that strangers are more likely to help an attractive than an unattractive person by mailing a lost letter containing a graduate school application with an attached photograph (Benson, Karabenick, & Lerner, 1976). More attractive job applicants are preferred in hiring decisions for a variety of jobs, and attractive people receive higher salaries (Dipboye, Arvey, & Terpstra, 1977; Hamermesh & Biddle, 1994; Hosoda, Stone-Romero, & Coats, 2003). Facial attractiveness also affects political and judicial outcomes. More attractive congressional candidates are more likely to be elected, and more attractive defendants convicted of crimes receive lighter sentences (Stewart, 1980; Verhulst, Lodge, & Lavine, 2010). Body attractiveness also contributes to social outcomes. A smaller percentage of overweight than normal-weight college applicants are admitted despite similar high school records (Canning & Mayer, 1966), parents are less likely to pay for the education of their heavier weight children (Crandall, 1991), and overweight people are less highly recommended for jobs despite equal qualifications (Larkin & Pines, 1979). Voice qualities also have social outcomes. College undergraduates express a greater desire to affiliate with other students who have more attractive voices (Miyake & Zuckerman, 1993), and politicians with more attractive voices are more likely to win elections (Gregory & Gallagher, 2002; Tigue, Borak, O’Connor, Schandl, & Feinberg, 2012). These are but a few of the research findings clearly demonstrating that we are unable to adhere to the conventional wisdom not to judge a book by its cover.
What Makes a Person Attractive?
Most research investigating what makes a person attractive has focused on sexual attraction. However, attraction is a multifaceted phenomenon. We are attracted to infants (nurturant attraction), to friends (communal attraction), and to leaders (respectful attraction). Although some facial qualities may be universally attractive, others depend on the individual being judged as well as the “eye of the beholder.” For example, babyish facial qualities are essential to the facial attractiveness of infants, but detract from the charisma of male leaders (Hildebrandt & Fitzgerald, 1979; Sternglanz, Gray, & Murakami, 1977; Mueller & Mazur, 1996), and the sexual attractiveness of particular facial qualities depends on whether the viewer is evaluating someone as a short-term or a long-term mate (Little, Jones, Penton-Voak, Burt, & Perrett, 2002). The fact that attractiveness is multifaceted is highlighted in research suggesting that attraction is a dual process, combining sexual and aesthetic preferences. More specifically, women’s overall ratings of men’s attractiveness are explained both by their ratings of how appealing a man is for a sexual situation, such as a potential date, and also by their ratings of how appealing he is for a nonsexual situation, such as a potential lab partner (Franklin & Adams, 2009). The dual process is further revealed in the finding that different brain regions are involved in judging sexual versus nonsexual attractiveness (Franklin & Adams, 2010).
More attractive facial features include youthfulness, unblemished skin, symmetry, a facial configuration that is close to the population average, and femininity in women or masculinity in men, with smaller chins, higher eyebrows, and smaller noses being some of the features that are more feminine/less masculine. Similarly, more feminine, higher-pitched voices are more attractive in women and more masculine, lower-pitched voices are more attractive in men (Collins, 2000; Puts, Barndt, Welling, Dawood, & Burriss, 2011). In the case of bodies, features that increase attractiveness include a more sex-typical waist-to-hip ratio—narrower waist than hips for women but not for men—as well as a physique that is not emaciated or grossly obese. Negative reactions to obesity are present from a young age. For example, a classic study found that when children were asked to rank-order their preferences for children with various disabilities who were depicted in pictures, the overweight child was ranked the lowest, even lower than a child who was missing a hand, one who was seated in a wheelchair, and one with a facial scar (Richardson, Goodman, Hastorf, & Dornbusch, 1961).
Although there are many physical qualities that influence attractiveness, no single quality seems to be a necessary or sufficient condition for high attractiveness. A person with a perfectly symmetrical face may not be attractive if the eyes are too close together or too far apart. One can also imagine a woman with beautiful skin or a man with a masculine facial features who is not attractive. Even a person with a perfectly average face may not be attractive if the face is the average of a population of 90-year-olds. These examples suggest that a combination of features are required for high attractiveness. In the case of men’s attraction to women, a desirable combination appears to include perceived youthfulness, sexual maturity, and approachability (Cunningham, 1986). In contrast, a single quality, like extreme distance from the average face, is sufficient for low attractiveness. Although certain physical qualities are generally viewed as more attractive, anatomy is not destiny. Attractiveness is positively related to smiling and facial expressivity (Riggio & Friedman, 1986), and there also is some truth to the maxim “pretty is as pretty does.” Research has shown that students are more likely to judge an instructor’s physical appearance as appealing when his behavior is warm and friendly than when it is cold and distant (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977), and people rate a woman as more physically attractive when they have a favorable description of her personality (Gross & Crofton, 1977).
Why Are Certain People Attractive?
Cultural, cognitive, evolutionary, and overgeneralization explanations have been offered to account for why certain people are deemed attractive. Early explanations suggested that attractiveness was based on what a culture preferred. This is supported by the many variations in ornamentation, jewelry, and body modification that different cultures use to convey attractiveness.
For example, the long neck on the woman shown in Figure 1 is unlikely to be judged attractive by Westerners. Yet, long necks have been preferred in a traditional Myanmar tribe, because they are thought to resemble a mythological dragon who spawned them. Despite cultural variations like this, research has provided strong evidence against the claim that attractiveness is only due to social learning. Indeed, young infants prefer to look at faces that adults have judged to be highly attractive rather than those judged to be less attractive (Kramer, Zebrowitz, San Giovanni, & Sherak, 1995; Langlois et al., 1987). Moreover, 12-month-olds are less likely to smile at or play with a stranger who is wearing a lifelike mask judged unattractive by adults than a mask judged as attractive (Langlois, Roggman, & Rieser-Danner, 1990). In addition, people across many cultures, including individuals in the Amazon rainforest who are isolated from Western culture, view the same faces as attractive (Cunningham, Roberts, Barbee, Druen, & Wu, 1995; Zebrowitz et al. 2012). On the other hand, there are more cultural variations in body attractiveness. In particular, whereas people from diverse cultures agree that very thin, emaciated-looking bodies are unattractive, they differ more in their appraisal of heavier bodies. Larger bodies are viewed more negatively in Western European cultures than other countries, especially those with lower socioeconomic statuses (Swami et al., 2010). There also is evidence that African Americans judge overweight women less harshly than do European Americans (Hebl & Heatherton, 1997).
Although cultural learning makes some contribution to who we find attractive, the universal elements of attractiveness require a culturally universal explanation. One suggestion is that attractiveness is a by-product of a more general cognitive mechanism that leads us to recognize and prefer familiar stimuli. People prefer category members that are closer to a category prototype, or the average member of the category, over those that are at the extremes of a category. Thus, people find average stimuli more attractive whether they are human faces, cars, or animals (Halberstadt, 2006). Indeed, a face morph that is the average of many individuals’ faces is more attractive than the individual faces used to create it (Langlois & Roggman, 1990). Also, individual faces that have been morphed toward an average face are more attractive than those that have been morphed away from average (see Figure 2; face from Martinez & Benevente, 1998). The preference for stimuli closer to a category prototype is also consistent with the fact that we prefer men with more masculine physical qualities and women with more feminine ones. This preference would further predict that the people who are most attractive depend on our learning experiences, since what is average or prototypical in a face, voice, or body will depend on the people we have seen. Consistent with an effect of learning experiences, young infants prefer face morphs that are an average of faces they have previously seen over morphs that are an average of novel faces (Rubenstein, Kalakanis, & Langlois, 1999). Short-term perceptual experiences can influence judgments of attractiveness even in adults. Brief exposure to a series of faces with the same distortion increases the rated attractiveness of new faces with that distortion (Rhodes, Jeffery, Watson, Clifford, & Nakayama, 2003), and exposure to morphs of human and chimpanzee faces increases the rated attractiveness of new human faces morphed with a small degree of chimpanzee face (Principe & Langlois, 2012).
One reason average stimuli, including faces, may be preferred is that they are easy to categorize, and when a stimulus is easy to categorize, it elicits positive emotion (Winkielman, Halberstadt, Fazendeiro, & Catty, 2006). Another possible reason average stimuli may be preferred is that we may be less apprehensive about familiar-looking stimuli (Zajonc, 2001). All other things equal, we prefer stimuli we have seen before over novel ones, a mere-exposure effect, and we also prefer stimuli that are similar to those we have seen before, a generalized mere-exposure effect. Consistent with a reduced apprehensiveness mechanism, exposure to other-race faces reduced neural activation in a region that responds to negatively valenced stimuli, not only for the faces the participants saw, but also new faces from the familiarized other-race category (Zebrowitz & Zhang, 2012). Such a generalized mere-exposure effect also could explain the preference for average stimuli, which look more familiar, although the effect may be more reliable for judgments of likeability than attractiveness (Rhodes, Halberstadt, & Brajkovich, 2001; Rhodes, Halberstadt, Jeffery, & Palermo, 2005). Whether due to ease of categorization or less apprehensiveness, the cognitive explanation holds that certain people are more attractive because perceptual learning has rendered them more familiar.
In contrast to the cognitive explanation for why we find particular people attractive, the evolutionary explanation argues that preferences developed because it was adaptive to prefer those individuals. More specifically, the good genes hypothesis proposes that people with physical qualities like averageness, symmetry, sex prototypicality, and youthfulness are more attractive because they are better-quality mates. Mate quality may reflect better health, greater fertility, or better genetic traits that lead to better offspring and hence greater reproductive success (Thornhill & Gangestad, 1999). Theoretically, averageness and symmetry provide evidence of genetic fitness because they show the ability to develop normally despite environmental stressors (Scheib, Gangestad, & Thornhill, 1999). Averageness also signals genetic diversity (Thornhill & Gangestad, 1999), which is associated with a strong immune system (Penn, Damjanovich, & Potts, 2002). High masculinity in male faces may indicate fitness because it shows an ability to withstand the stress that testosterone places on the immune system (Folstad & Karter, 1992). High femininity in female faces may signal fitness by indicating sexual maturity and fertility. The evolutionary account also can explain the attractiveness of youthfulness, since aging is often associated with declines in cognitive and physical functioning and decreased fertility.
Some researchers have investigated whether attractiveness actually does signal mate quality by examining the relationship between facial attractiveness and health (see Rhodes, 2006, for a review). Support for such a relationship is weak. In particular, people rated very low in attractiveness, averageness, or masculinity (in the case of men) tend to have poorer health than those who are average in these qualities. However, people rated high in attractiveness, averageness, or masculinity do not differ from those who are average (Zebrowitz & Rhodes, 2004). Low body attractiveness, as indexed by overweight or a sex-atypical waist-to-hip ratio, also may be associated with poorer health or lower fertility in women (Singh & Singh, 2011). Others have assessed whether attractiveness signals mate quality by examining the relationship with intelligence, since more intelligent mates may increase reproductive success. In particular, more intelligent mates may provide better parental care. Also, since intelligence is heritable, more intelligent mates may yield more intelligent offspring, who have a better chance of passing genes on to the next generation (Miller & Todd, 1998). The evidence indicates that attractiveness is positively correlated with intelligence. However, as in the case of health, the relationship is weak, and it appears to be largely due to lower-than-average intelligence among those who are very low in attractiveness rather than higher-than-average intelligence among those who are highly attractive (Zebrowitz & Rhodes, 2004). These results are consistent with the fact that subtle negative deviations from average attractiveness can signal low fitness. For example, minor facial anomalies that are too subtle for the layperson to recognize as a genetic anomaly are associated with lower intelligence (Foroud et al., 2012). Although the level of attractiveness provides a valid cue to low, but not high, intelligence or health, it is important to bear in mind that attractiveness is only a weak predictor of these traits, even in the range where it has some validity.
The finding that low, but not high, attractiveness can be diagnostic of actual traits is consistent with another explanation for why we find particular people attractive. This has been dubbed anomalous face overgeneralization, but it could equally apply to anomalous voices or bodies. The evolutionary account has typically assumed that as attractiveness increases, so does fitness, and it has emphasized the greater fitness of highly attractive individuals, a good genes effect (Buss, 1989). In contrast, the overgeneralization hypothesis argues that the level of attractiveness provides an accurate index only of low fitness. On this account, the attractiveness halo effect is a by-product of reactions to low fitness. More specifically, we overgeneralize the adaptive tendency to use low attractiveness as an indication of lower-than-average health and intelligence, and we mistakenly use higher-than-average attractiveness as an indication of higher-than-average health and intelligence (Zebrowitz & Rhodes, 2004). The overgeneralization hypothesis differs from the evolutionary hypothesis in another important respect. It is concerned with the importance of detecting low fitness not only when choosing a mate, but also in other social interactions. This is consistent with the fact that the attractiveness halo effect is present in many domains.
Whereas the cultural, cognitive, and overgeneralization accounts of attractiveness do not necessarily predict that the halo effect in impressions will be accurate, the evolutionary “good genes” account does. As we have seen, there is some support for this prediction, but the effects are too weak and circumscribed to fully explain the strong halo effect in response to highly attractive people. In addition, it is important to recognize that whatever accuracy there is does not necessarily imply a genetic link between attractiveness and adaptive traits, such as health or intelligence. One non-genetic mechanism is an influence of environmental factors. For example, the quality of nutrition and that a person receives may have an impact on the development of both attractiveness and health (Whitehead, Ozakinci, Stephen, & Perrett, 2012). Another non-genetic explanation is a self-fulfilling prophecy effect (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977). For example, the higher expectations that teachers have for more attractive students may nurture higher intelligence, an effect that has been shown when teachers have high expectations for reasons other than appearance (Rosenthal, 2003).
Although it may seem unfair, attractiveness confers many advantages. More attractive people are favored not only as romantic partners but, more surprisingly, by their parents, peers, teachers, employers, and even judges and voters. Moreover, there is substantial agreement about who is attractive, with infants and perceivers from diverse cultures showing similar responses. Although this suggests that cultural influences cannot completely explain attractiveness, experience does have an influence. There is controversy about why certain people are attractive to us. The cognitive account attributes higher attractiveness to the ease of processing prototypes or the safety associated with familiar stimuli. The evolutionary account attributes higher attractiveness to the adaptive value of preferring physical qualities that signal better health or genetic fitness when choosing mates. The overgeneralization account attributes higher attractiveness to the overgeneralization of an adaptive avoidance of physical qualities that signal poor health or low genetic fitness. Although there is debate as to which explanation is best, it is important to realize that all of the proposed mechanisms may have some validity.
- Article: For Couples, Time Can Upend the Laws of Attraction - This is an accessible New York Times article, summarizing research findings that show romantic couples’ level of attractiveness is correlated if they started dating soon after meeting (predicted by the matching hypothesis). However, if they knew each other or were friends for a while before dating, they were less likely to match on physical attractiveness. This research highlights that while attractiveness is important, other factors such as acquaintanceship length can also be important.
- Article: Is Faceism Spoiling Your Life? - This is an accessible article that describes faceism, as well as how our expectations of people (based on their facial features) influence our reactions to them. It presents the findings from a few studies, such as how participants making snap judgments of political candidates’ faces predicted who won the election with almost 70% accuracy. It includes example photos of faces we would consider more or less competent, dominant, extroverted, or trustworthy.
- Video: Is Your Face Attractive? - This is a short video. The researcher in the video discusses and shows examples of face morphs, and then manipulates pictures of faces, making them more or less masculine or feminine. We tend to prefer women with more feminized faces and men with more masculine faces, and the video briefly correlates these characteristics to good health.
- Video: Multiple videos realted to the science of beauty
- Video: Multiple videos related to the science of sex appeal
- Video: The Beauty of Symmetry - A short video about facial symmetry. It describes facial symmetry, and explains why our faces aren’t always symmetrical. The video shows a demonstration of a researcher photographing a man and a woman and then manipulating the photos.
- Video: The Economic Benefits of Being Beautiful - Less than 2-minute video with cited statistics about the advantages of being beautiful. The video starts with information about how babies are treated differently, and it quickly cites 14 facts about the advantages of being attractive, including the halo effect.
- Why do you think the attractiveness halo exists even though there is very little evidence that attractive people are more intelligent or healthy?
- What cultural influences affect whom you perceive as attractive? Why?
- How do you think evolutionary theories of why faces are attractive apply in a modern world, where people are much more likely to survive and reproduce, regardless of how intelligent or healthy they are?
- Which of the theories do you think provides the most compelling explanation for why we find certain people attractive?
- Anomalous face overgeneralization hypothesis
- Proposes that the attractiveness halo effect is a by-product of reactions to low fitness. People overgeneralize the adaptive tendency to use low attractiveness as an indicator of negative traits, like low health or intelligence, and mistakenly use higher-than-average attractiveness as an indicator of high health or intelligence.
- Attractiveness halo effect
- The tendency to associate attractiveness with a variety of positive traits, such as being more sociable, intelligent, competent, and healthy.
- Good genes hypothesis
- Proposes that certain physical qualities, like averageness, are attractive because they advertise mate quality—either greater fertility or better genetic traits that lead to better offspring and hence greater reproductive success.
- Mere-exposure effect
- The tendency to prefer stimuli that have been seen before over novel ones. There also is a generalized mere-exposure effect shown in a preference for stimuli that are similar to those that have been seen before.
- A face or other image that has been transformed by a computer program so that it is a mixture of multiple images.
- A typical, or average, member of a category. Averageness increases attractiveness.
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- Robert G. FranklinRobert G. Franklin is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Anderson University. He has authored several publications investigating which features contribute to attractiveness judgments and how attractiveness affects first impressions.
- Leslie ZebrowitzLeslie Zebrowitz, Manuel Yellen Professor of Social Relations at Brandeis University, has authored three books and many publications on physical appearance stereotypes. Recipient of an NIH Career Development Award for social neuroscience, she is currently supported by an NIA grant investigating the mechanisms influencing age-related changes in face impression accuracy.