Perceived Attractiveness Really is in the Eye of the Beholder
What makes someone physically attractive? In the age of selfies, dating apps, and Zoom calls, how to look attractive—or, at the very least, not unattractive—over a phone or computer screen is on many people’s minds. This is likely not just due to vanity. Being perceived as physically attractive comes with a number of advantages. For example, people who are viewed as physically attractive are perceived more positively on traits such as sociability, health, and intelligence than are people who are less attractive. Additionally, physically attractive people are treated more favorably in many contexts such as dating, job hiring, and political elections. This is all to say that beauty is often taken to be more than just skin deep.
Because physical attractiveness has such a strong influence on our social experiences, it seems important to understand what leads someone to be perceived as attractive. Because smiling is a potential way to increase attractiveness that is available to nearly everyone and it is a regularly present aspect of picture-taking experiences (“say cheese”), this seems like a good place to start. My colleagues and I at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University tested whether images of people (21-28 year olds from the Pittsburgh, PA area) were rated as more attractive when they were smiling versus not smiling. Because humans evolved to perceive people in motion we also wanted to explore whether attractiveness was higher for people presented in videos than in still photographs. The target people were rated in four presentation formats: smiling photo, smiling video, not-smiling photo, and not-smiling video. We found that smiling did increase attractiveness ratings and that people were rated as more attractive when they were presented in videos as compared to still photos.
While this was good information to have, we didn’t want to just stop there. In particular, we were curious, how much does presentation format (that is, smiling, motion of image) really matter? It’s not hard to imagine that there are other factors that contribute to attractiveness perceptions. For example, most people might agree that Idris Elba and Olivia Munn would be attractive regardless of whether they’re smiling or being depicted in a photo vs. video. However, you can also probably recall times that you’ve disagreed with a friend about the attractiveness of a celebrity or potential romantic partner. These examples suggest that in some cases people generally agree on the attractiveness of others, while in other instances subjective perceptions truly differ.
Because of this lack of consensus, we decided to test the extent to which attractiveness perceptions are influenced by presentation format, the person being perceived, the perceiver, or a combination of the person being perceived and the perceiver. We found that presentation format only accounts for a small amount of the differences in attractiveness ratings (about 1%). Unsurprisingly, we found that the specific target people have a significant influence on attractiveness ratings (about 22%). That is, there simply are some Idrises and Olivias out in the world. What we found more interesting, though, was that the perceiver mattered even more than the target (about 32%). That is, certain perceivers gave higher ratings of the images on average than did other perceivers—like a friend who thinks everyone is more attractive than you do. Moreover, attractiveness was strongly influenced by the unique combination of targets and perceivers, reflecting idiosyncratic attractiveness preferences (about 26%). This means that some perceivers rated certain images as more attractive than did other people, while the reverse was true for other images. For example, your friend thinks person A walking down the street is more attractive than Person B, but you think Person B is more attractive than Person A.
This all suggests that while some people may be rated on average more attractive than others, beauty is also very much in the eye of the beholder. Sure, smiling or doing a video chat may lead you to be perceived slightly more attractive than not smiling or sending a still photo, but it probably doesn’t have a huge impact. Instead, a positive takeaway from these findings might be that just because one person doesn’t find someone attractive, doesn’t mean no one will.
For Further Reading
Bowdring, M. A., Sayette, M. A., Girard, J. M., & Woods, W. C. (2021). In the eye of the beholder: A comprehensive analysis of stimulus type, perceiver, and target in physical attractiveness perceptions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-020-00350-2
Zebrowitz, L. A., & Montepare, J. M. (2008). Social psychological face perception: Why appearance matters. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1497-1517. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00109.x
Molly Bowdring is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research generally focuses on interpersonal processes and substance use (visit https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=QZvbD1QAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao for more information).