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I did research on facial attractiveness for years at a major university and published in the field. AMA

Apr 21st 2013 by norcross1 • 37 Questions • 1984 Points

Thanks for all of the interest & the questions (and the Gold) Since I started 12 hours ago, I am gonna take a break for a bit. Woe...I have 800+ emails. I'm not even joking. (http://imgur.com/oVQSNlh). 35 pages with 25 on each page. Well, I will do the best I can. Sorry if you don't hear back very soon.

Q:

What's your most surprising discovery?

A:

The most surprising discovery to me (not in my lab but people I know) is that a man's body odor (smelled by women) can reveal how symmetrical their faces and bodies are. And, this is often correlated to attractiveness. This was done by making men wear no deodorant and plain t-shirts for 2 weeks while college aged females came in to smell their BO & rate it... fun study. Some follow up studies debunked this slightly & added a few twits, but the gist is the same AFAIK...it's been a while since I followed this line of research.


Q:

I've been fascinated by the research into how women choose genetically alike males as mates when they are pregnant or on hormonal birth control (ie body thinks they're pregnant) but genetically different men as mates when ovulating/not pregnant. And if women mate with a genetically similar partner they are more likely to cheat. It's that whole good provider vs. good gene dynamic and it's interesting because it complicates that simplistic theory that males just want to spread genetic material and women just want a provider mate. There's biological machinations everywhere!

A:

Yay - you brought up what I actually worked on directly! I can elaborate on what you brought up or clear it up a little. When women are ovulating, they like the masculine male faced men. When they are on birth control, the preference is wiped out (since having a period on birth control is not a result of ovulation, which some readers might not realize - TBH as a guy I had no idea how it all worked when i was younger). Also, when they are not ovulating, they like the less masculine faces more. People have theorized that the "mate strategy" of a women is to marry a "neutral faced" provider and then have sex with the masculine pool boy or repairman when she's ovulating. Masculine faced guys have better immune systems, but they are more aggressive and less faithful - so they are not great long term partners. The significance of this (since the 60s with so many women on birth control) may have altered our entire species in a direction that it previously was not headed in. Making the above comments that I did is seen as controversial, but it's just a theory put out there by evolutionary psychologists.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v399/n6738/abs/399741a0.html

ETA Just to clarify this: There are no absolutes here. I guess that is where people get confused. Women on the pill still have sex w/ masculine faced men all the time. It's just a subtle shift in preference that happens to some women from a large sample in a research study that was statistically significant. This doesn't mean ALL women on the pill flee from manly men. The pill is not a light switch that sends all women fleeing from these types of men. It has a subtle, measurable effect...not an absolute inescapable one.

Women with very high image self esteem (i.e., they think they are hot) also like manly men - pill or not.


Q:

I've read that hormone-altering birth control will change who the female is attracted to, and also how it potentially leads to a bad match. With the research you've done, what is your view on BC, or other hormone-changing medications? Also, is there anything else I should be aware of that changes biological chemistry, appearance, attraction, etc?

A:

Yes, what you've read is accurate AFAIK. BC definitely changes facial preferences, no question...It must be controlled in every study or it will screw up results. BC may have much larger implications for matches when a woman goes off BC and then suddenly her partner seems "off" somehow...just like you said.

As far as "anything else" - hmm...there's not a ton of research on it - I'll think about it & edit if something pops up in my mind. I wouldn't be surprised if other drugs and chemicals have effects.


Q:

I'm piecing together some things I've seen in documentaries and read all over the place over the last couple decades (so, unfortunately no sources):

1) Sense of smell plays a huge part in selecting genetically suitable mates. I've read that if you hit it off with someone like whoa and like damn, and then at the first kiss (the first time you get a really good whiff of them through all the scented products and our modern hygiene) and suddenly you're not feeling it anymore, it's entirely possible you are smelling that they're unsuitable and your hardwiring is telling you so.

2) When pregnant (and nursing), that is, when vulnerable, women's preference for smells shifts from preferring men who are genetically compatible to men who match the scents of her closest relatives. I suppose because, other than her mate, these are the men who have a vested genetic interest in helping and protecting her?

3) One marriage counsellor interviewed for an article said (paraphrasing), "one of the most common complaints women in my office seem to have is, 'I can't stand the way he smells.'"

4) Hormonal birth control mimics pregnancy.

Is it possible, or likely, that because of hormonal birth control, which most women are taking when dating and after marriage but before deciding to have children, that women have been unwittingly choosing long-term partners (and fathers for their children) who are bad genetic matches? That hormonal birth control is not just shifting the preferences of women from more masculine partners to less, but that it is leading them to choose partners who are genetically similar to them--as similar as brothers, cousins, fathers?

If this is the case, is it possible, or even likely, that this trend may be partly responsible for recent increases in several disorders that have a heritable component? Things like allergies, asthma, autism, ADHD, etc?

In other words, is it possible that we are seriously fucking things up for ourselves, gene pool-wise?

A:

That's an interesting hypothesis for sure... There are definitely matches otherwise would not happen.


Q:

So... better(?) odor = more symmetrical or vice versa? Or how was the odor described?

A:

I think all the odors were "bad" - but they ranked them...and the ones they "liked" the most were correlated to men who were more symmetrical and they did the same for women (smelling men). The study was done a few times w/ different variations but this is the one I found just now: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10380676


Q:

How big of a factor would you say facial attractiveness is when compared to other factors?

A:

(Note: This was the first question i was asked and the "other factors" wasn't clear...if it was "face vs. body" or something like that...I'll just leave it as is, though it is not a great answer).

That is a hard question to answer because overall attractiveness is an amalgamation of many things that can range widely depending on who is evaluating a person. Depending on the culture, it can include things like family heritage, intellect, humor, facial attraction, body type, and a lot more.

I didn't really get into research beyond the face, but what I would say is that I think the answer to your question depends on a lot of things such as gender & the environment the person is in. For example, men and women prioritize different things when evaluating someone's overall attractiveness. Men rarely prioritize height, whereas women will prioritize this more frequently. So, facial attractiveness may be less important than height for some women (just as a random example - and of course there would be more factors here too). Also, some cultures prioritize facial attractiveness & sense of humor more than body (I could name one - but I'll leave the stereotypes out for now) - whereas others prioritize how well your body looks over everything else (these countries are also stereotyped often).

If you look at the rates of plastic surgery on the face vs. body - that is also an indicator. In Brazil, there is much more body work done per capita (lipo, breast implants, butt implants). In colder climates, people get more face work done (nose jobs, face lifts, botox, etc). Does that mean it's actually more important in attraction? Maybe - people's preferences can shift based on the environment they are raised in (priorities shift too, to suit the environment from a evolutionary standpoint).


Q:

n Brazil, there is much more body work done per capita (lipo, breast implants, butt implants). In colder climates, people get more face work done (nose jobs, face lifts, botox, etc). Does that mean it's actually more important in attraction? Maybe - people's preferences can shift based on the environment they are raised in.

Isn't that just because the face is much more visible during daily life than the body in colder climates?

A:

There's an age old interaction between nature and nurture (nurture being "climate" here) that can be kind of complex. Did climate affect preference for certain body types or faces - or did this preference exist independent of climate? It's probably some of both. For example, what happens when someone from a warm climate moves to a cold climate? Do they still look at bodies in the same way? (I think they do) Do they have a different appreciation of facial features? (probably not - at least not right away) So... that's sort of where I was going with that. It's hard to know for sure bc nobody has done a controlled study on it.


Q:

Do you consider your own face attractive?

A:

No.


Q:

Is that a gut reaction, or a scientific conclusion?

A:

Well, that was just a quick reply at first (that now became the top question I ever answered...yay for that..) but I would say no based on external feedback and scientific analysis combined.

Also, I was also a very good looking kid - and then after puberty, I turned into something totally different...so that was jarring & the change in how I was treated was hard to miss. That being said, I'm not a monster...I'm a 5 or 6. As a kid, I was the popular one who was like a 9 or 10... not as an adult.


A:

HA - i just died! (ETA Thanks for the RIPs)


Q:

What if OP said yes?

A:

They'd all hate me bc I'm beautiful.


Q:

Don't you have the knowledge to fix that?

A:

Yeah I have the knowledge to fix things in photoshop - but surgeons don't have the capacity to fix them in reality.

I'll post more about this later...since it went to the top... I might be able to find some pics that will interest people - but I don't want it to be a distraction. (i.e. I dont want to just talk about myself for the whole AMA)


Q:

We're going to need some proof. I mean you can't go around telling people you're unattractive and expect us to believe it.

A:

lol I'll email the mods.


Q:

Why are cheekbones so attractive?

A:

Prominent cheekbones & other "extraordinary" features can be attractive for a few reasons based on evolutionary psychology.

First, there is a theory called "costly signaling"* that means that if you see someone with high, broad cheekbones (or any "extraordinary" feature), this means that their body had to go through all of this extra "expense" to build and support those cheekbones..and this person has more "reproductive fitness" (better genes).

Second, cheekbones support the eyes - so broad cheekbones and wide set eyes (on a man in particular) indicate that he is probably a better athlete / hunter than someone with sunken cheekbones and poorly supported eyes. The cheek bone (and orbital rim - which it is attached to) was also important in supporting the eye during injury - which is crucial for survival.

Cheekbones have different levels of attractiveness in men and in women -and the ideal shape and size differ. In men, the "population average" cheekbone is the most attractive. In women, the "population average + slightly feminized" is the most attractive.

I hope that made sense, but ask a follow-up if it did not.

(*) The exact name of the theory is used in different ways - but this is how I first learned it.


Q:

Do you think someone can be attractive if they don't fit exactly within what the science says is best? have you ever thought someone was beautiful who didn't fit into what you have researched? edit: sorry for the poorly phrased question, I have been on reddit so long today I think I have turned my brain to goo

A:

Yeah, there are a lot of other factors that can influence things from personality to body. And, subjective perceptions of attractiveness are 30-40% of the equation. The same is true in the opposite direction. People w/ perfect facial features who are depressed (in static photos) will be perceived as less attractive.


Q:

What is the most "important" or prioritized among facial features for men? (ie. nose, chin, eyes, etc).

A:

Personally, I think the length of the midface is the most important feature...though there is no paper that has determined the single most important feature (since we perceive faces as a whole anyway)... But I would say that having a short midface, combined with wide set, forward set eyes and a wide jaw. These traits are the perfect hunter / athlete signal for a variety of reasons based in evolutionary psychology.

You probably never heard of a short midface before, but to determine it - measure the distance between your pupils. Then, measure the distance between the top of your nose (the midpoint of your eyes), and the middle of your lips. Then divide these two numbers (with the horizontal eye number on top and the vertical number on the bottom). The lower the number is, the more compact your midface is and the more attractive you would tend to be. If it is 0.8-1.2 that is good. Outside of that range, it's not so good...almost universally. Generally, the closer to 1 the better. So, I'd say that is the most important (even though it's not a "feature"), though other things matter.


Q:

How is skin quality more important than you ever thought?

A:

I thought it maybe mattered 5% - but studies keep showing that it matters a lot more than that - and it is correlated to all kinds of health variables. When we do studies, we have to control for it carefully...we have to "Average out" everyone's skin color and take out any moles, blemishes, and dark under-eye shadows or that will affect the results of what we're really trying to study. If you don't control for skin quality, you end up seeing huge effects of skin quality that are just bizarre.


Q:

Huh, that's actually really interesting, have you noticed if the percentage that skin quality matters increases or decreases in importance based on the other levels of attractiveness in an individual? Or is more of a universal importance?

A:

Good question - I don't know for sure, but it might follow the classic rule though that if someone is extremely attractive - an "exception" isn't going to hurt them much Heidi Klum with a zit will not change her attractiveness...but, if someone is not in that 10/10 range - then skin quality probably plays a bigger role.

Also, I am skeptical that someone who is quite unattractive (but has flawless skin) will be perceived as attractive...so I think it's an "add on" for people in the 5/10-9/10 range...not a big determinant.


Q:

So what is quality skin? Is there something more to it that smooth and featureless?

A:

basically this: http://imgur.com/wwpPJZt

But the main point of good skin is that it shows hydration, good blood flow, lack of disease, physical resilience (limited scars), and maybe even strong immunity. These are things people had to worry about more 100-30,000 years ago more than today. Moles (historically) could have been cancer and abscesses could result in infection & indicate disease. Acne is more complicated bc of its somewhat complex causes.


Q:

What do most people view as the best eye color?

A:

Blue eyed men view blue eyed women as more attractive, but brown eyed men do not have this preference. It's odd - but that's what the research shows. (I am realizing, after answering 10+ questions already that there are no straightforward answers in this field!)

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00265-006-0266-1

ETA: These studies are just averages - not absolutes...so of course blue eyed men might like brown eyed women, etc...the studies just find a trend or average and test for statistical significance. It means the blue eyed population is a little different from the brown eyed one - but certainly not 100%


Q:

Also, length of eyelashes. For men and women.

A:

I am not aware of any published studies on this. I think the effect of eyelashes is related to their ability to make the eyes seem stronger - which has evolutionary / survival implications.


Q:

Have you done studies on men with beards, and if so, does a beard help, hurt or 'it depends'. Which style(s) of beards are best, and can a beard hide otherwise negative aspects of a face's shape?

A:

From research papers:

Male faces displaying a full beard were considered the most masculine, aggressive, socially mature, and older. Males with a light beard were considered the most dominant. Males with light stubble were considered to be the most attractive, light stubble was also preferred for both short- and long-term relationships. These findings are discussed in terms of age preferences and good-genes models.

Beards augment perceptions of men's age, social status, and aggressiveness, but not attractiveness.

The male beard is not obviously related to phenotypic quality and may have evolved through a process of runaway intersexual selection. (It doesn't indicate any kind of good genes, etc)

http://beheco.oxfordjournals.org/content/23/3/481.short http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886908001748 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0162309595000682

I think the style would have to depend on the person. It could exaggerate existing asymmetry in some cases... or it could mask it. Also, these studies used uniform, relatively dense beards which say "secondary sexual characteristic" not patchy / scraggly beards.


Q:

Can I PM you a picture of my face and you tell me some stuff about it?

A:

Sure - but it might take me a while... also - if you can ask specific questions & tell me how much freedom I have to criticize you, it will help much more. I used to do it for plastic surgery patients, and they wanted VERY heavy criticism. The average person might feel ripped to shreds by this, though.


Q:

I understand your reluctance to "pick apart" someone in person. That is a helluva thing to do so someone. I couldn't do it.

But perhaps we could analyze someone who is sure to have passed on? Just yesterday, this old sepia toned photo from the 1860's in Brazil was posted to /r/HistoryPorn (a Safe for Work subreddit, by the way.)

Link to thread is here.

There was a consensus that the women in the center was very beautiful (and I concur.) Someone even mentioned that she possessed super-model qualities.

Can you dissect this and tell us what it is that makes her so attractive using your professional criteria? After all, she is not even smiling.

http://i1.minus.com/i8ehTq8SY7oao.jpg

A:

Thanks for posting a pic like that...I mean, historical good looking woman (so it's much easier doing this "in public" without sounding like an ass) Here's what I'd say if she was one of the people who emailed me for a plastic surgery consult...

Well, first, the picture isn't great quality - so I can't see what I am used to seeing - but that points to the importance of ratios (even in an old somewhat blurry pic, you can see she has the right midface ratio - I'll get to it in the end). First, you can see that her eyes are wide set and forward set (relatively large compared to other features). She has hooded eyes (the upper lid appears covered by skin below the brow), which I think are attractive but this is debated sometimes. They are sometimes associated w/ age but sometimes associated with being more attractive. I think they are attractive. Her nose appears in proportion to the rest of her face - narrow, defined.

One major plus on her is the distance between her nose and upper lip. It is tiny. This is an attractive feature. She has thin-ish lips but that doesn't detract from her face at all. It fits everything else. (This is what people with thin lips don't understand who have fillers - they blow up their lips and it then it makes them look insane because it doesn't fit their face)

Her cheekbones have the classic ogee curve from the side associated with female beauty (not male).. They are very strong, and her undereye area is supported by strong structures as well (orbital rim, muscle, and fat). She does not have a sunken midface or any convexity (as far as I can tell from the front) - her cheek bones are strong laterally (on the side) and in front (below the eye). There is no sagging of the eyes or negative tilt of the canthus (lids)...the eyes tilt up slightly at the outer corners which is good.

Her chin is tapered at the bottom of her face, which is feminine. It is slightly receded, again which is feminine but might be problematic if it is to receded (I can't tell from this view). It is not too long or too wide - though I would need to see a picture from the side to see if it is too recessed (it might be). The chin connects to a slightly expanded jawline, with tight skin. The jaw isn't too wide or masculine (it is not parallel with the cheek bones like the ideal male face)...but it is also not tapered so she has an inverted triangle face. She has a nice, defined jawline.

Her temples seem uneven - on the left, it appears hollow but on the right it appears full. Full temples are more attractive - this may be an issue of where her hair is and the age of the photo. Also, her prominent cheek bones almost make the temples look indented when they are really in the right place, probably (again, a clearer pic would help).

From MY view, her forehead is too tall (going by the facial thirds rule) - but this might be due to the way her hair is pulled back and the blurriness around where her eyebrows are. I might be seeing it differently than someone else.

Her midface appears to have a ratio of 1.1 which is basically the ideal (and most important ratio on the face). If you measure the distance between her eyes, and the distance between the top of her nose to the middle of her lips & divide this number, you get 1.1. So, she has a compact midface which is a very important feature for facial attractiveness.

If she had to fix one thing, she'd need filler in the left temple area.

Ideally, i'd like to see her from the side too - and 1 pic from a 3/4 (oblique) angle...plus one smiling. But, that should give you an idea of how I analyze. If she was unattractive, you'd have everyone on this board hating me...I've done it before - sometimes people get very upset.


Q:

I got 1.03 (super rough) I'M ALMOST ATTRACTIVE

A:

1.03 is better than 1.1...smaller is better.


Q:

What about too small, like in the .83 area?

A:

you might have measured wrong or u are very young.


Q:

You keep saying criticism might be very harsh. Do you have an example where you analyzed a face completely candidly? I want to know how bad it can get.

A:

I just did one above - the woman from the historical pic. It's not brutal bc she's pretty - but it can get brutal when you tell someone they have certain features responsible for their lack of attractiveness that cannot be changed. I did this on my own face - and I wasn't happy with myself...I'm still not.

The thing is - I have been answering questions for a few hrs straight and I haven't been able to do a full analysis until now...a good one takes about 30 min & I usually move things around in photoshop to confirm my thoughts... so that was a quick 10-15 minute one of someone pretty - so i didn't have to couch everything.


Q:

Is there a particular face shape that is deemed "most attractive" ?

A:

Are you thinking about "round vs oval vs square"? Those terms are generally not descriptive enough - but I think the best way to answer this is that people with short mid-faces are the most attractive. To determine this for yourself, measure the distance between your pupils. Then, measure the distance between the top of your nose (the midpoint of your eyes), and the middle of your lips. Then divide these two numbers (with the eye number on top and the vertical number on the bottom). The lower the number is, the more compact your midface is and the more attractive you would tend to be. If it is 0.8-1.2 that is good. Outside of that range, it's not so good...almost universally. Every other "face shape" question has a qualification.

For example, there is also some research into sex-dimorphic (sex typical) face shape. So, men with broad cheek bones and wide, square jaws tending to be more attractive than men without these features. However, women only consider this attractive when they are ovulating or if they have high self esteem about their own bodies. Men consider women attractive w/ the most feminized faces, though - and that's always been straightforward. A feminized face tends to have a compact midface like I described above + wide large eyes, large lips, and a tapered jaw.


Q:

I just realized how stupid I probably looked measuring my face with a ruler, sitting in front of my computer, because some guy on the internet said I could tell how attractive I was if I did.

A:

lol - well also... measure it on a photo - it's easier.


Q:

What impact does hair have on facial attractiveness? (Particular interest: beards and how a face is framed by hairstyle.)

A:

We always crop out hair in studies so it doesn't have an effect...it has a low correlation to facial attractiveness (around r = 0.3)


Q:

In your opinion, what is the purpose of duckface? Does it work?

A:

I've never understood it honestly. It's bizarre - u probably have a better guess than me on why ppl do it.


Q:

So, I send you my picture and you'll tell me how ugly I am? Sounds like another great weekend...

A:

Only if you will tell me how ugly I am in return.


Q:

Can you speak to the positive correlation between attractiveness & intelligence?

A:

I think this work gives a good summary:

http://psp.sagepub.com/content/28/2/238.short

The relationship between the two is kind of complicated, and the research is very contradictory. I'll come back to this if there are fewer Qs.


Q:

I'm really digging all of these studies posted to coincide with each claim made and answer given. I can safely say I'm learning a great deal more from this AMA than from most.

A:

Wow thanks.... I appreciate it. For parts of this, I felt like a performing monkey and for other parts I felt like an idiot bc I didn't know answers to questions that seemed obvious (but they are really complex). I wasn't sure if the link posting was annoying or not..someone was like "I don't have time to read a bunch of abstrats." lol..I'm like - I'm the one answering like 400 questions... and I have to read the abstracts to be accurate.


Q:

How big is the window for certain features to be considered attractive?

For example, broad cheekbones are attractive, but how broad is too broad? Same with eyelashes, symmetry, etc. I guess there's no perfect answer and most of it is probably subjective.

A:

If you take everyone in your population (wherever you are - white, indian, latino - etc...and average all of their features together, you will get an "ideal" face. The deviations from the ideal make the face less attractive for men. For women, the most attractive face is the "average" plus feminized changes (tapered jaw, large wide eyes, big lips, etc.)

The "window" is hard to describe...it depends how far you stray from the average.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001691804000794


Q:

How important is voice as a factor in sexual attraction?

A:

I don't study voice but here's someone who studies it a LOT:

http://www.voiceresearch.org/


Q:

People often tell my I'm photogenic. Why do you think some people photograph better then others? I don't think any of my features are particularly impressive such as great cheekbones, big full lips or big eyes.

A:

That's a good question. It's a real issue too - in research, we have to take everyone's photo w/o any flash because it drastically alters how people look. People who have stronger facial bones and facial muscles are more photogenic usually when they are put into 2D from 3D. Also, a flash camera can't "wash them out". Also, if you have more angles in your face, you will be more photogenic (more attractive in 2D) than someone who has more of a flat, amorphous face. Wide set, forward set eyes are more photogenic than narrow, deep set (small) eyes. You might also have a short midface (distance between your eyes and lips) which is a huge help for photographers because the lens can exaggerate long faces.