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The Science of Beauty

We all know that gorgeous people get preferential treatment. It’s a not-too-pretty fact of life long attributed to the halo effect, a type of cognitive bias or judgment discrepancy in which our impression of a person dictates the assumptions we make about that individual. For example, people will more readily blame an unattractive person for a crime than an attractive one. Now there’s evidence that beauty, intelligence, and other positive characteristics may go hand in hand.

Evolutionary psychologists have opened a tantalizing line of inquiry into other age-old questions about beauty, observing that men and women alike appear more concerned than ever with both attractiveness and perceived physical imperfections. That makes sense given that other research shows how companies that hire attractive people enjoy higher revenues. The public would rather deal with a good-looking shop clerk rather than a less visually appealing one. This preference for attractiveness can be found across domains, including politics, media, and the legal field.

How Do People Define Beauty?


It’s no surprise that a pretty woman will tend to be favored over others for a coveted job opening. And there are some universal standards of beauty across the world. Symmetry in the face and the body are preferred traits, for example, as are clear skin and youthfulness.

Heterosexual men more strongly desire women with hourglass-shaped figures as well as feminine features. These characteristics are considered markers of health and fertility. However, for women, looks only go so far. While heterosexual women also seek symmetry in male partners' features, as well as height, they generally value status and resources at least as much, focusing on the question of whether a man will a man help them raise and support their future children.

The Signs of Beauty

Here is a short list of what men and women tend to prefer when it comes to beauty.

  • Total Symmetry. Perfect symmetry—such as the distance between the eyes or the distance from eyes to mouth—signifies beauty.
  • Waist-to-Hip Ratio. A skinny waist and curvy hips in women is preferred, as it indicates fertility and a healthy environment for child-bearing.
  • The Left Side. People find the left side of a face more pleasing.
  • The Baby Face. Women who look child-like—with doe eyes, for example—are preferred by men.
  • The Tall Man. Women prefer tall men, as height can signal status and power; the truth is, taller people do actually earn more.
  • Inside the Eyes. The limbal ring is the circle around the iris. While this ring fades over time, prominence signifies youth.
  • The Lumbar Curve. A curvy spine in women also signifies health and fertility.
  • Clear Skin. Billions of dollars are spent on attaining perfect skin, another signal of the importance of youthful appearance.

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