Sunday, 5 January 2014

Attractive or Simply Average? Why Not Both?

         It is no secret that North American society places a seemingly unhealthy emphasis on appearance. Magazine stands are packed with covers displaying photo-shopped celebrities, fitness shortcuts, beauty tips designed to make us question our own attractiveness, and solutions to a problem we didn't even know we had (while selling a few magazines in the process). It may be easier for some to shrug off this unhealthy obsession with appearances, but it's nearly impossible to entirely dismiss the idea that we may be judged by others based on our appearance. This is because we are. Research has found that children who are rated unattractive are also judged by both adults and other children as less well-adjusted, socially appealing, and even academically competent (Langlois et al. 2000). Although it may be easy to dismiss judgments based on attractiveness as shallow and superficial, there is evidence that our attractiveness may impact our interactions with friends and colleagues. With this in mind, the question is: what makes us attractive to one another? The answer may reside in our often lazy brains.

         When it comes to selecting a romantic partner it is no surprise that people generally prefer individuals with attractive faces over their less attractive counterparts. There has been a lot of research into the psychology behind perceptions of attractiveness, particularly into the affect of average and symmetrical faces. While it seems intuitive that people would prefer symmetry over asymmetry, why would we prefer an average face to one unique in its beauty? According to researchers at the University of Texas, this appreciation for an “average” looking face may stem from the ease with which we process facial features.

         Recent research by Trujilo, Jankowitsch, and Langlois (2013) has proposed that average faces (prototypes created using features from 32 different faces) appear to be processed faster than faces of real people that were rated as attractive or unattractive. By using brain imaging technology to understand what is going on in our heads when we are presented with faces varying in ratings of attractiveness, researchers have proposed that average faces are more easily processed than their attractive and unattractive counterparts. Not only were the average faces processed faster by
individuals' brains, but these artificially created “average” faces were also rated as more attractive than the attractive faces of actual individuals. Additionally, individuals categorized the average and attractive faces as human faster than unattractive faces, which further supports the idea that attractive and average faces are simply easier for our brain to process and categorize. So what does this mean for those of us who sit in line at the grocery store and get down on ourselves while we contemplate our own looks compared to the standards presented by digitally enhanced celebrities?

         First and foremost, this research should cause us to question the importance of attractiveness. Is it really all that important that a person looks similar to some mash-up of every face we've ever seen in our lives? Should we really be catering to our lazy brains, and moving towards some standard of beauty that ignores our genetic heritage and the uniqueness that sets us apart from the crowd? Looking across a university campus you'd think that the consensus was 'yes' to both of these questions. Students dress similarly, style their hair similarly, and even groom themselves similarly.

         So should we all just break down and try to fit in with the crowd? Well if our goal is to be perceived as competent on first impressions, research seems to suggest that we should tug on our Ugg boots, pop on our faux fur-lined hooded jackets, and practice our perfectly average look in the mirror. However, we should all keep in mind that first impressions give way to deeper contemplation and appraisal by our peers. No amount of 'averageness' can save you if you aren't really that competent socially adjusted young go-getter you first appeared to be. Our brains may initially like what is easily categorized, but after first-impressions are finished with, we begin to appreciate the uniqueness of the person we are associating with. Long-lasting relationships cannot be maintained by first impressions alone, and as we get to know one another those unique characteristics that interfered with our easy categorization may not be perceived as unattractive, but as the features that make us who we are. After all, it's the freckles, wacky hair and crooked grins that let us differentiate one another, and it is these “unattractive” features that we come to love about one another. It's not the average face of every man or woman that we find attractive, but the face of that one person that fills our heart with love and desire.

        So the next time you're perusing magazines with a friend who asks if you think some digitally remastered celeb is gorgeous, you can simply smile and say “Nah, pretty average.”

-Chad Buckland

Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M., & Smoot, M. (2000).
        Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological bulletin, 
        126(3), 390.

Trujillo, L. T., Jankowitsch, J. M., & Langlois, J. H. (2013). Beauty is in the ease of the beholding: A
        neurophysiological test of the averageness theory of facial attractiveness. Cognitive, affective &
        behavioral neuroscience.

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