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Elegance Versus Beauty in Older Faces

Attractiveness judgments are affected by age, sex, and linguistic descriptors.

Key points

  • Facial beauty varies by age, sex, and the words used to describe attractiveness.
  • Older people are judged to be less attractive than younger people. Young people and men are more critical judges than older people.
  • Elegance as a descriptor for attractiveness is more resistant to effects of aging than beauty or gorgeousness.
  • Young people are relatively insensitive when discriminating levels of attractiveness among older people.
Photo by Esther Ann on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Esther Ann on Unsplash

This post was co-authored by Dexian He.

Attractiveness influences social interactions. The “beautiful is good” and the complementary “ugly is bad” or “anomalous is bad” biases demonstrate that a person’s physical attractiveness affects viewers’ attitudes, judgments, behaviors and brain responses (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972; Workman et al., 2021). The age of a person, a salient feature of faces, also influences the perception of attractiveness; older faces are typically regarded as less attractive than younger faces (North & Fiske, 2015).

In a recent study (He et al., 2021), we re-examined perceptions of attractiveness in older adults. Are attractiveness judgments affected by the age and gender of the viewer, as well as the person being viewed? Does the language used to describe attractiveness vary depending on the age of the person being judged?

To answer these questions, people from three age groups (young: 21–33 years; middle-aged: 36–57 years; 60–76 years) were asked to rate 90 faces on three facets of attractiveness: beauty, elegance, and gorgeousness. They also indicated how much they liked the faces.

Figure from He et al, 2001
Figure 1. Young, middle, and older ages for the same reference face
Source: Figure from He et al, 2001

We confirmed earlier observations that older faces are considered less beautiful, elegant, and gorgeous, and are liked less than younger faces. More specifically, young people found young faces more attractive than did older people. Older female faces received lower ratings from men than from women. In addition, judgments of beauty, elegance, and gorgeousness ratings were affected differently by age. While the ratings for all these attractiveness descriptors diminished with age, elegance was affected least.

Face preference networks

We applied computational network science methods to complement our investigation. Network science provides quantitative methods to illuminate complex systems as networks. Participants’ attractiveness ratings to single faces can be used to create face preference networks to add insight based on the distribution of faces within a larger subjective attractiveness network space.

We estimated three types of networks: age-based face preference, sex-based face preference, and descriptors of attractiveness-based face preference networks. Older faces cluster together more closely (are viewed as similar in attractiveness) than younger and middle-aged faces suggesting that older faces are treated categorically—old faces look the same and distinct from middle-aged and younger faces in their attractiveness.

Variability in the structure of face preference networks

For older viewers, older faces segregated into two main communities that were distant from each other. Older people, perhaps not surprisingly, are more sensitive to distinctions in attractiveness among their peer group.

These changes in the viewer may reflect the fact that our face preferences continue to be informed by experiences and exposures to faces across the lifespan. Older people are probably more exposed to other older people, especially in societies like the U.S. where people are often segregated by age.

Compared to women, men were more likely to differentiate faces by age and sex. Men appear to be more sensitive to features of physical attractiveness than women, and their sensitivity is further pronounced when judging women’s faces.

Our network analyses revealed a stronger association of the dimension of elegance with older than younger and middle-aged faces, and with female than male faces. Elegance, as a descriptor of attractiveness, seems to alert people to finer distinctions in attractiveness in older faces. This concept may incorporate cultural norms of attractiveness that are tethered differently to physical features than when attractiveness is thought of in terms of beauty or gorgeousness.

References

Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285–290. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033731

He, D., Workman, C. I., Kenett, Y. N., He. X., & Chatterjee, A. (2021). The effect of aging on facial attractiveness: An empirical and computational investigation. Acta Psychologica, 219, 103385. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2021.103385

North, M. S., & Fiske, S. T. (2015). Modern attitudes toward older adults in the aging world: A cross-cultural meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 141(5), 993-1021. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039469

Workman, C. I., Humphries, S., Hartung, F., Aguirre, G. K., Kable, J. W., & Chatterjee, A. (2021b). Morality is in the eye of the beholder: The neurocognitive basis of the "anomalous-is-bad" stereotype. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1494(1), 3-17. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14575

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