The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

All stereotypes are true, except... II: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which means that different people possess different standards of beauty and that not everyone agrees on who is beautiful and who is not. This is the first stereotype or aphorism that evolutionary psychology has overturned. It turns out that the standards of beauty are not only the same across individuals and cultures, they are also innate. We are born with the notion of who’s beautiful and who’s not.

On the surface, the aphorism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” appears quite reasonable. Many introductory college textbooks in sociology and anthropology include pictures of people who are considered to be beautiful in different cultures, and some of them look quite bizarre to the contemporary western eye. However, evolutionary psychological research has overturned this common assumption and widespread belief.

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Within the United States, both East Asians and whites, and whites and blacks agree on which faces are more or less beautiful. Cross-culturally, there is considerable agreement in the judgment of beauty among East Asians, Hispanics, and Americans; Brazilians, Americans, Russians, the Aché of Paraguay, and the Hiwi of Venezuela; Cruzans and Americans in Saint Croix; white South Africans and Americans; and the Chinese, Indians, and the English. In none of these studies does the degree of exposure to the western media have any influence on people’s perception of beauty. How is it possible for people from such diverse cultures to agree broadly on who is beautiful and who is not?

It appears that people from different cultures share the same standards of beauty because they are innate; we are born with the knowledge of who’s beautiful and who’s not. Two studies conducted in the mid-1980s independently demonstrate that infants as young as two and three months old gaze longer at a face that adults judge to be more attractive than at a face that adults judge to be less attractive. Babies are wonderfully hedonistic and have no manners, so they stare at objects that they consider to be pleasing. When babies stare at some faces longer than others, it indicates that they prefer to look at them and find them attractive.

In the most recent version of this experiment, newborn babies less than one week old show significantly greater preference for faces that adults judge to be attractive. Another study shows that 12-month-old infants exhibit more observable pleasure, more play involvement, less distress, and less withdrawal when interacting with strangers wearing attractive masks than when interacting with strangers wearing unattractive masks. They also play significantly longer with facially attractive dolls than with facially unattractive dolls. The findings of these studies are consistent with the personal experiences and observations of many parents of small children, who find that their children are much better behaved when their babysitters are physically attractive than when they are not.

Even the most ardent proponents of the traditional view that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” must admit that one week (or even a few months) is not nearly enough time for infants to have learned and internalized the (supposedly arbitrary) cultural standards of beauty through socialization and media exposure. These studies instead strongly suggest that the broad standards of beauty might be innate, not learned or acquired through socialization. The balance of evidence indicates that beauty is decidedly not in the eye of the beholder, but might instead be part of universal human nature.

But what are the culturally universal and innate standards of beauty? What common features characterize beautiful faces? How are beautiful faces different from ugly faces? These questions lead us to the next stereotype to be overturned by evolutionary psychology: “Beauty is only skin deep.” I will talk about it in my next post.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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