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April 29, 2004

Hot or Not?: Genes vs. Culture & Taste

Culture and individual taste do not play large roles in who people consider attractive.

[update added]

At least according to Nancy Etcoff in her book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Here's a portion of the sub-chapter entitled Universal Beauty:

Despite racism, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, people have always been attracted to people of other races. Today the world is a global community where international beauty competitions have enormous followings (although many complain that these contests favor Western ideals of beauty). There must be some general understanding of beauty, however vaguely defined, since even three-month-old infants prefer to gaze at faces that adults find attractive, including faces of people from races they had not previously been exposed to. In recent years scientists have taken a deep interest in the universality of beauty.

It turns out that people in the same culture agree strongly about who is beautiful and who is not. In 1960 a London newspaper published pictures of twelve young women's faces and asked its readers to rate their prettiness. There were over four thousand responses from all over Britain, from all social classes and from ages eight to eighty. This diverse group sent in remarkably consistent ratings. A similar study done five years later in the United States had ten thousand respondents who also showed a great deal of agreement in their ratings. The same result has emerged under more controlled conditions in psychologists' laboratories. People firmly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and then they jot down very similar judgments.

Our age and sex have little influence on our beauty judgments. As we have seen, three-month-old babies gaze longer at faces that adults find attractive. Seven-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and adults do not differ significantly in their ratings of the attractiveness of the faces of children and adults. Women agree with men about which women are beautiful. Although men think they cannot judge another man's beauty, they agree among themselves and with women about which men are the handsomest.

Although the high level of agreement within cultures may simply reflect the success of Western media in disseminating particular ideals of beauty, cross-cultural research suggests that shared ideals of beauty are not dependent on media images. Perhaps the most far-reaching study on the influence of race and culture on judgements of beauty was conducted by anthropologists Douglas Jones and Kim Hill, who visited two relatively isolated tribes, the Hiwi Indians of Venezuela and the Ache Indians of Paraguay, as well as people in three Western cultures. The Ache and the Hiwi lived as hunters and gatherers until the 1960s and have met only a few Western missionaries and anthropologists. Neither tribe watches television, and they do not have contact with eachother: the two cultures have been developing independently for thousands of years. Jones and Hill found that all five cultures had easily tapped local beauty standards. A Hiwi tribesman was as likely to agree with another tribesman about beauty as one American college student was with another. Whatever process leads to a consensus within a culture does not depend on dissemination of media images.

Cross-cultural studies have been done with people in Australia, Austria, England, China, India, Japan, Korea, Scotland, and the United States. All show that there is significant agreement among people of different races and different cultures about which faces they consider beautiful, although agreement is stronger for faces of the same race as the perceiver.

In the Jones and Hill study, people in Brazil, the United States, and Russia, as well as the Hiwi and Ache Indians, were presented a multiracial, multicultural set of faces (Indian, African-American, Asian-American, Caucasians, mixed-race Brazilian, and others). There was significant agreement among the five cultures in their beauty ratings and some differences. For example the Hiwi and the Ache agreed more with each other than they did with people in Western cultures. This is not because they share a culture - they don't - but because they have similar facial features, and they are sensitive to the degree of similarity between their facial features and the features of the people in the photographs. For example, although the Ache had never met an Asian person, they were curious about the Asian-American faces, attracted to them, and aware of a similarity between these faces and their own. The Ache gave less favorable ratings overall to African-American faces, and they called the Caucasian anthropologists "pyta puku", meaning longnose, behind their backs. One Caucasian anthropologist was given the nickname "anteater".

Since the Hiwi and the Ache had never encountered Asians and Africans, had met only a few Caucasians, and were not accustomed to using the scientists rating scales, any level of agreement with the Western cultures is intriguing. Jones found a number of points of agreement. People in all five cultures were attracted to similar geometric proportions in the face. They liked female faces with small lower faces (delicate jaws and relatively small chins) and eyes that were large in relation to the length of the face. Jones called these "exaggerated markers of youthfulness", and they are similar to the features mentioned in other cross-cultural studies of beauty. For example psychologist Michael Cunningham found that beautiful Asian, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, and Caucasian women had large, widely spaced eyes, high cheekbones, small chins and full lips.

People tend to agree about which faces are beautiful, and to find similar features attractive across ethnically diverse faces. The role of individual taste is far more insignificant than folk wisdom would have us believe.

Pages 137-139. Inspired by a conversation in this thread.

Update: These evo psych primers for male and female mate preferences are two of my favorite research summaries on the web (from this worthwhile lecture series). The former one adds:

Within and between cultures, individuals may display variance in response to specific features, but will respond in a similar manner to the features as a whole. We should thus expect similar judgements in response to attractive/unattractive faces. They presented males from 4 ethnic-cultural groups in 13 countries with Asian, black, Hispanic, and white female faces. The average correlation between racial groups in their rating of attractiveness was r = .93, exposure to Western media had no influence on the ratings. Males in all cultures were attracted to female faces displaying large eyes, small noses, high cheekbones, small chin and a large smile; body shape preferences did differ though with black males preferring 'heavier' bodies.


Previous related discussions (that may return some day): Mirror, Mirror . . . , Who is the fairest of them all?, Black Beauty, "Black" chicks, Blondes do have more fun, Blondes & babies , Eurasians.

Posted by Jason Malloy at 04:20 PM