We may put beautiful people on billboards, but it’s the average looking we’re drawn to, says Richard Stephens
Why might you be attracted to one face over another? It’s an age-old question thought to be too subjective to be worth serious scientific scrutiny, until recently. The multimillion-pound cosmetics industry demonstrates the huge level of interest in how we look. But attractiveness is not, as you might at first think, linked with distinctiveness; it’s actually the opposite.
While having a unique look hasn’t harmed the career of, say, Lily Cole, studies have repeatedly shown that when it comes to which faces we prefer, we are more impressed by averageness. Researchers created artificial faces on a computer by combining photos of several people’s faces to generate a composite, “average” image. In preference trials, these highly average faces were consistently rated most attractive. What’s more, the more faces were used to build a composite face, the more attractive the composite face was judged to be.
As well as averageness, there is another important influence on how physically attractive a person’s face is perceived to be. A simple research study shatters whatever romantic notions you may hold. Male and female volunteers looked at a series of smiling female faces and were asked to rate the attractiveness of each one. Some of the faces they saw just once, while others they saw six times. By the end of the study the repeatedly viewed faces were picking up higher attractiveness ratings for no other reason than the added exposure. Did you think familiarity breeds contempt? You couldn’t be more wrong.
This tendency, to form a more positive impression the more familiar something becomes, is known to psychologists as the “mere exposure effect”. It applies to many different situations. Research has shown that people will evaluate photographs, sounds, shapes, names and even made-up words more positively if they have encountered them before.
It also affects judging on the Eurovision Song Contest. One recent study showed that when it comes to voting for a Song for Europe, newer countries that must perform in both the semi-final and final gain a points advantage over more established countries appearing only in the final, simply because the judges are watching these performances for a second time.
You might think it superficial to dwell on a person’s appearance – it ignores the deeper attraction that underlies how we choose a soulmate. And yet physical attractiveness has been found time and again to be the main driver of popularity in dating studies. For instance, a recent study of speed dating found that men relied solely on physical attractiveness in choosing a female partner. Women were also very much influenced by appearance, although they could also be seen to factor in the openness, confidence and education of the men they talked to.
While these studies bear witness to the importance of looks when it comes to romance, there is still hope for us all. If you are not blessed with the average features that most of us apparently crave, then simply presenting yourself as often as possible to the object of your desire may overcome this. Harness the “mere exposure effect” to your advantage in the hope that your crush will develop a liking for the familiar. Perseverance can win out in the end.
Adapted from Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad by Richard Stephens (John Murray, £11.99). To order a copy for £8.39, go to bookshop.theguardian.com
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010