03 December 2008

Beauty all about in-group

The adage says beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but our ideas on what makes a face attractive may be influenced by friends and family, a study suggests.

The adage says beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but our ideas on what makes a face attractive may be influenced by friends and family, a study suggests.

When 113 adults were asked to rate the attractiveness of various faces, the researchers found that siblings, friends and spouses were more likely to agree with each other than strangers were.

The findings suggest that perceptions of beauty are not just a matter of individual tastes or wider cultural influences. Our small social circles might play a role too.

It's possible that the relationship goes the other way - we spend time with certain people partially based on our views of attractiveness, according to Dr Richard Russell, at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the study researchers.

However, siblings in the study tended to agree on which faces were easy on the eyes, and that relationship, Russell noted in an interview, is something we cannot choose.

Universal standards
Studies over the past 2 decades have found that there do seem to be certain "universal" standards of beauty that cross cultures. There appear to be cultural influences too, as the opinions of people within the same culture are generally more in sync than those of people from different cultures.

"But there actually is quite a lot of disagreement among individuals" about what constitutes an eye-pleasing face, Russell explained. In studies, one person may consider a certain face "hot," while the next person gives it a strong "not" vote.

Russell said he and his colleague, Dr Matthew Bronstad of Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, investigated whether there might be some "social organisation" in all of this: Do people more closely agree on what is beauty with their close relations than they do with strangers?

The researchers recruited 20 married couples, 20 pairs of siblings and 41 pairs of close friends, asking each participant to rate 74 faces of Caucasian undergraduates on a scale of 1 to 7, from "very attractive" to "very unattractive." All participants also had their responses compared with those of another participant they did not know.

In general, the investigators found that close relations were more likely to agree than the strangers were. In addition, the strength of their agreement tended to climb with the number of years that they'd been in daily contact.

Familiarity shapes preferences
"One possibility is that people who spend a lot of time with each other are seeing many of the same people," Russell said. Familiarity, he explained, seems to help shape our preferences regarding attractiveness.

Understanding how people arrive at their standards for attractiveness has relevance well beyond the dating game, according to Russell. The results of other studies suggest that perceived attractiveness may have broad effects on how people are treated in their daily lives, affecting things as vital as their odds of getting a job or their earnings potential.

SOURCE: Perception, online November 7, 2007. – (Reuters Health)

Read more:
Love really is in the eyes
Why some are unattractive

December 2007


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