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Psychology of Attraction

Improving Self-Image

Physical Attractiveness of the Face and the Attractiveness Halo

The general topic of attractiveness is important to members of virtually every culture, especially to the young who seek romantic partners and to those who seek to extend their influence in society through contact with others. Attractiveness is significant to each individual and to most people whom the person meets, and the effects of attractiveness could extend to virtually every other impression a person makes. Attractiveness to a psychologist means how others perceive and rate the desireability of a person's features. Such ratings or opinions depend partly on inherent physical attractiveness of the facial features and partly on other factors, for example, how these features are "packaged" or presented. Given the importance of physical beauty to perceived attractiveness, purveyors of aids and accessories for enhancing physical attractiveness make every effort in consumer-oriented societies to emphasize this aspect of attractiveness. The face is a focus of much attention when it comes to physical attractiveness, because this part of the body represents the person's identity and is most exposed to public view. Thus, whether a person is in general considered beautiful or not depends much on facial beauty. The remainder of this page addresses the factors that contribute to the attractiveness of the face, how one's attractiveness affects others and their behavior, and how someone might improve or maintain facial attractiveness.

What Makes a Face Attractive?

less physical attractiveness less facial beauty more facial attractiveness
A. brachycephalic B. dolichocephalic C. straight

People within a given culture agree among themselves about what faces are attractive and what makes them attractive. They may disagree with people in other cultures about certain attributes of beauty, but much of what is considered attractive is shared across cultures. These largely universal characteristics of facial beauty are considered in more detail here. General characteristics of faces that contribute to beauty include symmetry, i.e., facial features are mirrored across the vertical midline of the face. Slight imperfections in symmetry are probably not significant; rather, large deviations easily perceived, such a crooked mouth, deviated nose, or one eye too small, disrupt the perception of beauty. Proportion among facial features also contributes to beauty, i.e., features, such as the mouth or nose, should not be too large or small in comparison with other facial features. Proper placement of these features on the face is another factor contributing to beauty, i.e., the eyes are not too close together or too far apart, and the eyes and mouth lie approximately upon lines dividing the face into thirds (a guideline of portrait artists). The shape of the face in profile also shows a clear relation to attractiveness, with the straight profile (C in the table on the right) preferred. Symmetry, good proportion, proper layout, a straight profile, and other such general characteristics may be considered more attractive because they represent a certain mean or expectation about the correct appearance of the face. This expectation of the beautiful face might have something to do with special areas in the brain for processing facial information. Marked deviations from this mean may indicate lack of fitness or ill-health (see the Health and Disease Facet), a possible object of natural adaptive selection pressures underlying preferences.

Attractiveness of the face is correlated with other dimensions, including: babyfacedness (see the Physiognomy Applications page), especially for females; youthfulness of the face, especially for mature adults; familiarity of the face; certain attributions about personality to the person behind the face. These and other correlations show that judgments of attractiveness are influenced by related kinds of judgments observers make about the face, even ones unrelated to physical aspects of the face.

Each person may have individual issues about what specific facial features are attractive or unattractive, beyond the general characteristics discussed above. Some of these features may be cast into these generalizations. Moles or scars, for example, because they violate both a healthy appearance and the symmetry of the face, are probably better removed or hidden. So many beauty marks are not really, but instead illustrate a strategy of making the best of what one has. The idea of cosmetic beauty spots, which would resemble moles, was that they could cover smallpox scars, a much worse defect. Questions about the attractiveness of other specific facial features can only be determined by examining the individual face that contains them.

How Does Attractiveness Affect the Impressions and Behavior of Others?

Mere physical attractiveness exerts a generally positive influence on the attitudes and behaviors of observers, an effect known as the attractiveness halo. An opposite, negative halo for especially unattractive faces also exists. Psychologists have a range of opinion about how strong the attractiveness halo is. Unfortunately, this sub-area of social psychology contains some of its most flawed research and poorest thinking, pathetic even for this motley field, and no definitive statement can yet be made. In an authoritative review of these issues, Ray Bull and Nichola Rumsey summarize the evidence from the generally weak but numerous research studies in this area and put the questions raised into a coherent perspective (The Social Psychology of Facial Appearance, Springer, 1988). They take a judicious, middle road between the two poles of opinion on the strength of the attractiveness halo, whether it is confined mostly to artificial behavior in social psychology experiments or is a pervasive and powerful determinant of real-world social behavior. They examine the attractiveness halo in regard to dating and mate selection; persuasion in politics, advertizing, and employment; effects on judges and jurors in criminal proceedings; the influence on teachers and students; and its role in parenting. Additional chapters present other, related issues such as disfigurement and its remediation. Their conclusion is that while appearance may affect behaviors in artificial or trivial circumstances, there is little evidence that it has important effects in real life. They also discuss how this halo effect may depend upon the characteristics of the perceiver, where the weak minded may be influenced more than those with sharper wits.

expanding attractiveness halo
Merely by using
cosmetics, women
increase their
attractiveness.

One of the myths of contemporary culture is that attractiveness is the key to success - anyone can become materially, psychologically, and socially happy once a certain level of attractiveness is achieved. It is safe to say that many people act as though they believe in the truth of this proposition in their attempts to improve their appearance. Vast industries , such as entertainment and media, personal services, medical services, and cosmetic products, promote this view in order to sell products. Huge sums are spent by advertizers who rely on attractive people to sell their products, rather than substance. Research shows that attractive spokespersons for products are able to bolster interest in an advertizement and even to boost a positive attitude towards it, but are generally unable to affect one's opinion about the product or the inclination to buy it. Although people agree on the desireability of more attractive people as marital partners, the evidence shows that they select mates who are similar to their own level of attractiveness. This issue is more complex than space here allows a good explanation, but in general, unless the issue is trivial or the person lacks intellectual capacity, attractiveness alone is not likely to influence any other person significantly, except perhaps in regard to sexual attraction. The point is that someone who is interested in success in a career, in permanent romance, in their own self-satisfaction, in anything other than being attractive, should focus on their creative skills and interpersonal abilities, and less upon their physical beauty. This conclusion does not mean that one should be unconcerned about one's appearance, demeanor, and behaviors - these are different issues from attractiveness.

How Can You Make Your Face More Attractive?

Everyone can take simple steps to maintain facial appearance. If these suggestions sound too familiar and fail to provoke interest, remember that doing the simple things right is fundamental to more specific approaches.

  • Look healthy - show a clean face; attend and heal wounds promptly and avoid scarring; eliminate or hide lesions such as moles, pimples, and blemishes.
  • Avoid agents of aging - do not expose your face to the sun (or other nuclear radiation); avoid extreme environmental conditions such as strong hot and dry winds, extreme cold, or heat (see the Aging Facet).
  • Practice moderation - eat a balanced diet emphasizing foods salubrious for the skin care; avoid excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages and over-use of drugs (including prescription drugs - see your physician about reducing drug use and the relationship between the drugs you use and your appearance); take a multi-vitamin.
  • Project a well groomed demeanor - people rate faces as more attractive if they think the person carefully attends to their appearance.
  • Carefully consider accessories - clothing, such as hats, and accessories, such as jewelry, can improve the overall appearance of the face if appropriately chosen.

Another group of recommendations for a more attractive face is specific to particular deficiencies:

male physical attractiveness
Men can use facial
hair to enhance
attractiveness by
adapting it to their
facial features.
  • If female, use cosmetics - Women who use cosmetics are perceived as more attractive, presuming that the cosmetics are applied appropriately. A woman can improve her attractiveness simply by using cosmetics. Some men, however, prefer women who use a minimum or no cosmetics, so if you might be interested in this male type, be alert for his preference and try a low-cosmetic strategy. If you are a man and have a specific blemish that can be hidden by cosmetics, consider how much can be gained by hiding it using a technique generally considered feminine. It can be cost-effective to hide it.

  • If male, growth (or elimination) of facial hair can improve attractiveness. A beard or moustache can hide blemishes or scars. Growth of hair on the chin can lengthen a receding or short chin. If you already have a strong chin, it may be better to shave, or to clip the beard closely to show this strong point. If you are a man who enjoys wearing facial hair, attractiveness points can be earned by carefully attending its appearance.
  • Neither wrinkles nor other signs of age are as problematic for beauty as other critical developments, such as leathery skin and facial hair for women or, in men, vascular and coloration changes (see the Aging Facet). The best approach to these problems is to avoid or postpone them with proper skin care.

Consult allies for advice - If you have questions about your appearance, compose a query that you feel comfortable addressing to your closest friends, but be aware that they may have an incentive to be less than frank. It is always appropriate to inquire of the people you pay for services related to your health or appearance, such as a dermatologist, an orthodontist, a psychologist, a beautician, or hair stylist. Be aware that someone may have an ulterior motive (e.g., to sell you something) so weigh other factors (e.g., their professional integrity) into your decisions. Do not assume that your long-held opinion or belief about what is best for your facial attractiveness is actually correct.

One point from the above list is that the basic aspects of facial beauty are a matter of simple, inexpensive measures, rather than something that results from costly, elaborate, and risky medical procedures, in the vast majority of cases. Finally, remember that physical beauty is a component of overall attractiveness, albeit an important one. Your physical deficiencies can be offset by tasteful clothing, an engaging personality, your skills and interests, and your achievements and products. Conversely, relying merely on physical attributes may not be a successful long-term or all-encompassing strategy for the goals you strive to achieve.

Images copyright © Corel Corp.

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