Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beauty is NOT in the Eye of the Beholder

If you followed my series on how women are all the same when it gets to decide on which men are attractive or not, you might have picked up that there were several paragraphs where I eliminated the gender barrier and included men. I had planned to extend this into a whole nother post, but Alibiades beat me to it.

The issue at hand is that women are less concerned about the physical beauty of their partners as men.

Instead, women select men by a conglomerate of features that I like to summarize as "high status" (which is best described as "a dominant way of doing things"; read more about what I mean here). And since status is attributed in a hierarchical fashion, there are few men in each population that are deemed desirable to women.

Speed dating data reveals (accordingly) that the desirability of men falls of nearly exponentially over the population (which directly mirrors the relationship between rank and copulation rate in other primates).

What this means is that if you plot desirability on the y-axis against the number of men in the population it will look like the graph on the left: the farther you go away from the most attractive guy, the quicker the decline in desirability.

So women all swoon for the same few guys (as a group they are highly likely to have sexual events with the same few men - see: this study on sexual networks).

But what about men? If they go for "beauty" - isn't that a rather subjective measure? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn't there a chance that different men will go for different females?

Well, as it turns out this is not the case.

Scientists have been fascinated with the study of facial beauty since decades, and if there is one thing that pops out it is how much we all agree on who is hot or not.

To quote from a large scale meta-analysis of dozens of academic papers on the subject:
"Raters agree about who is and is not attractive, both within and across cultures; [and] attractive [individuals] are judged more positively than unattractive children and adults."

So we do not only agree on who is more attractive, we also think they are better people. this was studied in greater depth by another meta-analysis:
"Physically attractive people were perceived as more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled than physically unattractive people."

We do make judgments about the personality of people just based on their looks? Oh yes we do. Is this just another cognitive bias? You betcha:
"The correlational literature indicated generally trivial relationships between physical attractiveness and measures of personality and mental ability"

Note that it is true that more beautiful individuals differ from the rest of the mere mortals:

"good-looking people were less lonely, less socially anxious, more popular, more socially skilled, and more sexually experienced than unattractive people."
No wonder given how other people react to them (presumably since childhood).

Now, what is it that makes a woman beautiful?

Again, there is a multitude of studies on the subject, all converging to the following cross-study summary:
"The "ideal" face has an average profile with slightly protrusive and full lips. Attractiveness increases with average features and symmetry. Moreover, particular features such as the scheme of childlike characteristics combined with aspects of maturity and expression make a female face appear especially beautiful."

Aha. We like the average girl the best. This makes sense to a biologist. The more you deviate from the norm, the more likely there is something severely wrong with you. And what men want is healthy (and trustworthy) fruit bearers.

What I find more interesting, however, is that beauty is unlikely to fall off exponentially over the population. It is much more likely that it follows a bell curve ("Gaussian") distribution.

In other words, there will be many girls with average attractiveness, and a few of stellar beauty (as well as of unbelievable ugliness). If you plot beauty (on the x-axis) against the number of girls in the population, it would look like the graph on the left.

The result is that there is a much less steep follow-off from the most desirable women towards the ones that nobody wants to touch (an S-shaped cummulative Gaussian rather than an exponential decay). This is one of the reasons why men seem "less selective" in finding mates than women.
Wait a minute! You might say, what about men? Don't these studies investigate beauty across gender?

Well, believe it or not: women do not care about what a man looks like. As stated above, women do not select men for their beauty. they select them for how they do things. If a woman cannot see this attribute of a guy, she is left with a guess (as to who would be attractive or not). And different women will guess differently. For scientists who are trying to unravel what makes men handsome, this expresses itself in the following result:
"Which attributes contribute to attractiveness of a man's face are controversial."


  1. Beauty is NOT in the Eye of the Beholder

    Yes it is, and the only reason you would say otherwise is because you can't stand the idea of someone not sharing your preferences. Really common neurosis among PUAs for some reason.

    1. Your opinion is irrelevant. The facts speak for themselves. We learn this in university level psychology as well. There are clear biological indicators of attractiveness. Facial symmetry seems the be the biggest one.

      In men broad shoulders, muscular builds, and square jaws are considered attractive.

      In women small noses, lack of skin blemishes or marks, big breasts, full lips, and filled out thighs are considered attractive.

      Despite all the deviating sexual fetishes out there, our natural tendencies incline us toward such features in mates. It's only later in life if we are subjected to unusual experiences do our sexual preferences in what is considered physically attractive in a mate become, for lack of a better word, warped.

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  2. @ JCS - Would be nice if you start reading my posts for a change. In contrast to you, I don't just make bold claims. There are several studies I link to that disprove your world view.

  3. That's not what either of those papers say.

  4. A lot of good posts lately. Keep up the good work!

  5. true it is. people like average and don't even realize it.

    but let's not forget, no matter how big part of our actions comes from our "animal instincts", we are not animals. we are not the way we were 100 years ago.

    and women simply overlook (but they do not dismiss this factor as unimportant) the looks of a man, IF he is absolutely awesome :)

  6. There are several studies I link to that disprove your world view.

    No such studies exist. It is perfectly self-evident that not everyone has the same preferences.

  7. people like average and don't even realize it.
    It is a stunning finding, isn't it? By now most people have heard about the average face effect. Just a few weeks ago a new study came out showing that the same is true for voices!

    we are not animals.
    That's where biologists disagree. By all definitions we are primates and much closer to chimps and bonobos than we like to believe.

    and women simply overlook (but they do not dismiss this factor as unimportant) the looks of a man, IF he is absolutely awesome :)
    Call it as you will. If they can overlook a man's exterior, it means that women dismiss it by action. This happens so frequently that there even is a popular German saying just for that occasion ("Who they fall in love with is surprising even those who fall in love").

  8. It is perfectly self-evident that not everyone has the same preferences.

    No one disputes that. If you give people a piece of paper, they will tell you all kinds of things of what they think they want in a partner.

    The thing is - it is completely meaningless. The speed dating studies revealed that when it comes to actual mate choice, people act as if their list of preferences was someone else's (in fact, one study even showed that women would alter their stated preferences right after an event to match their behavior; and not the other way round).

    At this point you will argue that this still doesn't mean that people all run for the same men or woman. And you are right about that, too (although it gets close to that when female sexual choice is concerned).

    My point is that this is largely due to compromise. I am not saying it is a conscious compromise - far from it. But it is a compromise nonetheless.

    The studies I link to are good evidence for that. Men seem to rate themselves in attractiveness and adjust their "cutoff" for attractive women accordingly. We all know that phenomenon. People call it dating "in their league". That means that if you think you are less attractive, you will not even try to date an unusually attractive woman. That's a measurable effect.

    It's also measurable that people will feel that the partner they end up with was chosen for a number of reasons other than "she just happened to be in my league".

    I know that these findings are counter intuitive. They even seem insulting. But to simply reject large amounts of scientific data just because it doesn't fit our intuition is not very wise.

  9. 11 minutes,

    There was a documentary on human beauty and attractiveness on nova or discovery channel. They ran several experiments including one that showed that people will match up with the opposite sex at roughly the same level of attractiveness as you stated.

  10. My point is that this is largely due to compromise.

    People are desperate and will settle for almost anyone if it means not having to be alone (and then they wonder why their relationships always turn into train wrecks). But that is not an indication of what they really want.

  11. Well, believe it or not: women do not care about what a man looks like.

    This needs qualification. For men there is the superstar effect. If you are in the top 5% of men lookswise, you don't need any game. Any. But if you are merely in the top 10% of men lookswise, it won't be enough. As you point out, a steep drop off.

  12. For men there is the superstar effect. If you are in the top 5% of men lookswise, you don't need any game.
    I have my doubts about that.
    The problem is that most of these guys are acting high status since they have been privileged their whole lives.

    I believe that Women do not see their looks but the high status attitude while other fail to see their body language and think it is all about their looks.

    The point in case is that any of those top 5% that I know have nights out where they get completely disregarded by girls. If it were just their exterior that simply wouldn't happen.

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