In the Eye of the Beholder

The science of social perception.

When Does Classifiable = Beautiful?

Are people who are difficult to categorize more attractive or less attractive?

What makes a person appear beautiful? Several prominent theories—dating back to Galton (1879)—have suggested that there is “beauty in averageness.” That is, a person with a more diverse gene pool is more attractive because the more extreme features associated with any one group are softened by the input of the other groups. At the same time, however, another line of research on “processing fluency” suggests that people generally view atypical or difficult-to-categorize objects more negatively. When people feel frustrated by their inability to categorize an object, they often transfer that frustration onto that object. This applies when that object is another person. For instance, several studies have provided evidence that biracial people are often viewed more negatively than monoracial people.

So which is it? Are difficult-to-categorize people considered more attractive or less attractive? In a recent article, psychologists Jamin Halberstadt and Piotr Winkielman suggest a possible answer. When observers’ attention is drawn to the fact that the person in question belongs to two distinct categories, then the reaction is negative. But when attention is drawn away from the fact that this person represents a categorization problem, the person is viewed more positively. Thus, a biracial man with both Asian and White features is viewed as comparatively unattractive when labelled an Asian man or White man, but is viewed as comparatively attractive when labelled as just a man.

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Here is what the researchers did to test their hypothesis. In one study, they presented participants with a series of faces on a computer screen. Twelve of the faces had clearly East Asian features, 12 had clearly White features, and 24 were faces that were digitally morphed to be exactly 50 percent East Asian and 50 percent White. Participants in one condition saw each face, categorized it as East Asian or White by pressing one of two keys on the keyboard, and then rated how attractive they considered the face (on a 1-9 scale). Participants in the other condition saw each face, but rather than categorizing it by race, categorized it by what emotion the person appeared to be feeling. Then they rated the face’s attractiveness.

The researchers found that participants in the second condition—the emotion categorization condition—rated the single-race faces and mixed-race faces equally attractive. But the participants in the race categorization condition clearly rated the single-race faces more attractive than the mixed-race faces. In other words, the very act of categorizing the faces by race made difficult-to-categorize faces seem less attractive.

In a second study, they used a similar procedure except participants were also connected to an electromyography (EMG) device. EMG involves measuring the tiny movements people unconsciously make with the muscles in their face. This method has been used fairly often as a marker of unconscious emotional responses. It turns out that when people are shown pictures of positive stimuli (puppies, cake), the muscles involved in forming a smile show a slight but reliable surge in activity. But when people are shown pictures of negative stimuli (snakes, vomit), muscles involved in frowning become more active. Halberstadt and Winkielman presented their participants with photos of monoracial faces or biracial morphed faces. Participants either had to categorize each face by race, or simply press the “F” key to move on. Amazingly, those who had to categorize the face beforehand, showed a clear pattern of unconscious activation of their smiling muscles when shown single-race faces but activation of the frowning muscles when shown mixed-race faces. This difference, however, disappeared for those participants who did not have to categorize the faces by race.

These data suggest that a significant portion of the decision about how attractive someone is has little to do with that person’s inherent features. Instead, our own subjective sense of how easily we can classify that person feeds into the decision. We think that it’s about the other person, but really, we’re transferring our own feelings of discomfort onto that person. When that discomfort is removed, the exact same person is viewed as considerably more beautiful.

Reference:

Halberstadt, J. & Winkielman, P. (2014). Easy on the eyes or hard to categorize: Classification difficulty increases the appeal of facial blends. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 50, 175-183.

 

Jason Plaks, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

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