Many of us have had the experience of disagreeing with friends or family about which celebrity is more attractive. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on October 1 show in a study of twins that those differences of opinion are mostly the result of personal experiences that are unique to each individual. In other words, even identical twins don’t agree.
Of course, some aspects of attractiveness are pretty universal and may even be coded into our genes, the researchers say. For example, people tend to prefer faces that are symmetric. Beyond such limited shared preferences, however, people really do have different “types.”
“We estimate that an individual’s aesthetic preferences for faces agree about 50 percent, and disagree about 50 percent, with others,” write joint leaders of this project, Laura Germine of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University and Jeremy Wilmer of Wellesley College. “This fits with the common intuition that on the one hand, fashion models can make a fortune with their good looks, while on the other hand, friends can endlessly debate about who is attractive and who is not.”
Germine and Wilmer say that past research on the way people respond to faces has focused primarily on universal features of attraction. In the new study, however, they and their colleagues wanted to know more about where those disagreements over facial attractiveness come from.
To tackle this question, the researchers first studied the face preferences of over 35,000 volunteers who visited their science website TestMyBrain.org; they used the insights gained to develop a highly efficient and effective test of the uniqueness of an individual’s face preferences. They then tested the preferences of 547 pairs of identical twin and 214 pairs of same-sex, non-identical twins by having them rate the attractiveness of 200 faces.
Comparisons between identical and non-identical twins allowed the researchers to estimate the relative contribution of genes and environments to face preferences. Prior studies of twins and families have shown that virtually every human trait–from personality to ability to interests–is to some large degree genetically passed down from one generation to the next. Indeed, the researchers even found this in an earlier study for another aspect of face processing: the ability to recognize faces.
In contrast, they now show that the origin of the “eye of the beholder” –the uniqueness of an individual’s face preferences–is mostly based on experiences, not genes. Those experiences, moreover, are highly specific to each individual.
“The types of environments that are important are not those that are shared by those who grow up in the same family, but are much more subtle and individual, potentially including things such as one’s unique, highly personal experiences with friends or peers, as well as social and popular media,” Germine says.
In other words, it’s not about the school you went to, how much money your parents made, or who lived next door. That pretty face you see apparently has a lot more to do with those experiences that are truly unique to you: the faces you’ve seen in the media; the unique social interactions you have every day of your life; perhaps even the face of your first boyfriend or girlfriend.
The researchers say that the large impact of personal experience on individual face preferences “provides a novel window into the evolution and architecture of the social brain.” They say that future studies could look more closely at which aspects of the environment are really most important in shaping our preferences for certain faces and for understanding where our preferences for other things–like art or music or pets–come from.
About this psychology research
Funding: This work was supported the US National Institute of Mental Health , the Australian Research Council, and a Brachman Hoffman Fellowship and Small Grant.
Source: Joseph Caputo – Cell Press Image Source: The image is credited to Germine et al. Original Research:Abstract “Individual Aesthetic Preferences for Faces Are Shaped Mostly by Environments, Not Genes” by Laura Germine, Richard Russell, P. Matthew Bronstad, Gabriëlla A.M. Blokland, Jordan W. Smoller, Holum Kwok, Samuel E. Anthony, Ken Nakayama, Gillian Rhodes, and Jeremy B. Wilmer in Current Biology. Published online October 1 2015 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.048
Individual Aesthetic Preferences for Faces Are Shaped Mostly by Environments, Not Genes
Highlights •Differences in how people judge face attractiveness can be reliably measured •Individual face preferences are primarily explained by differences in environments •In contrast, face identity recognition is explained primarily by genetic variation •Different domains of social judgment/face perception have distinct etiologies
Summary Although certain characteristics of human faces are broadly considered more attractive (e.g., symmetry, averageness), people also routinely disagree with each other on the relative attractiveness of faces. That is, to some significant degree, beauty is in the “eye of the beholder.” Here, we investigate the origins of these individual differences in face preferences using a twin design, allowing us to estimate the relative contributions of genetic and environmental variation to individual face attractiveness judgments or face preferences. We first show that individual face preferences (IP) can be reliably measured and are readily dissociable from other types of attractiveness judgments (e.g., judgments of scenes, objects). Next, we show that individual face preferences result primarily from environments that are unique to each individual. This is in striking contrast to individual differences in face identity recognition, which result primarily from variations in genes [ 1 ]. We thus complete an etiological double dissociation between two core domains of social perception (judgments of identity versus attractiveness) within the same visual stimulus (the face). At the same time, we provide an example, rare in behavioral genetics, of a reliably and objectively measured behavioral characteristic where variations are shaped mostly by the environment. The large impact of experience on individual face preferences provides a novel window into the evolution and architecture of the social brain, while lending new empirical support to the long-standing claim that environments shape individual notions of what is attractive.
“Individual Aesthetic Preferences for Faces Are Shaped Mostly by Environments, Not Genes” by Laura Germine, Richard Russell, P. Matthew Bronstad, Gabriëlla A.M. Blokland, Jordan W. Smoller, Holum Kwok, Samuel E. Anthony, Ken Nakayama, Gillian Rhodes, and Jeremy B. Wilmer in Current Biology. Published online October 1 2015 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.048