Hot or Not

With Valentine’s Day coming up, I thought I’d do a post about the science of attraction. The purpose of this post is not to summarize everything that we know about what makes people attractive to one another, but to explain how we think about it.

First, it is important to realize that attractiveness is not a single trait. Attractiveness is what we call an “emergent property” of many different traits — that is, people may possess many different traits that all add up to making them however attractive they are.

Attractiveness may be broken down broadly into two divisions: physical attractiveness and non-physical attractiveness. Physical attractiveness is the aspects of a person’s body that you find attractive (hands, feet, face, whatever else you’re into), and non-physical attractiveness are the personality, values and social traits of a person.

Another way of breaking down attractiveness is into how broad the preference is for certain traits. Traits may be typical of humans as a species, typical of individual cultures, or individual preferences.

Species-Typic Attractiveness

These are the traits that humans, as a species, tend to find attractive in one another. We can talk about this the same way we talk about any other trait in any other species. For example, the American lobster (Homarus americanus) is usually a reddish-brown color, but about one in two million is instead a brilliant blue color. The presence of the blue lobsters does not change the fact that the typical color of the species is reddish-brown. It just means that there are exceptions to the norm. In humans, the most basic rule of attraction is that men are attracted to women, and women are attracted to men. This is the species-typic trait. But a few percent of humans are either attracted to people of the same sex, to people of any sex, or to no one at all. The existence of these traits — which are far more common than blue lobsters — does not change what is typical of the species, nor are people with these traits any less human. We can tell when an aspect of attractiveness is species-typic when it is common across cultures and throughout time.

The following are examples of other traits that humans tend to find attractive as a species:

Symmetry is a trait that is attractive not only to humans but to many other species. People of both sexes are more attractive when they have more symmetrical faces and bodies. Denzel Washington, people magazine’s sexiest man of 1996, was once found to have an almost perfectly symmetrical face.

Examining the symmetry of Denzel Washington. Image from http://www.pleacher.com

Men are most attracted to women who have a low “waist to hip ratio” or a waist that is narrower than the hips. This is true of people across cultures and time. Waist to hip ratio (or WHR) is calculated by dividing the circumference of the waist by the circumference of the hips. Models and actresses commonly have a WHR of 0.65-0.75.  

Marilyn Monroe’s WHR was 0.63. Image from http://www.dailyhiit.com 

Conversely, women typically find men more attractive who have broad shoulders and relatively narrow hips.

Henry Cavill (as Superman) has an impressive shoulder-to-hips ratio. Image from http://www.healthyceleb.com

 

Men and women differ in the size of the lower face, and this difference is important in attractiveness. Women with a smaller lower face (relative to the size of the upper face) and men with a larger lower face (relative to the upper face) are more attractive. This is fairly hard to imagine from my description, but the following pictures of Mila Kunis and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau should make it more clear. Pay close attention to the shape of the jaw, the width of the jaw, and the distance from the chin to the nose:

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Image from http://www.virtual-history.com

Mila Kunis. Image from http://www.redcarpetnewstv.com

The most universally attractive non-physical trait is niceness. People of both sexes all over the world prefer romantic partners who are nice to them. This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone, but it has been confirmed by science.

Culture-specific Traits

Fashions for clothing, hair styles, facial hair, makeup, and jewelry are vastly different throughout time and space. High heels were originally a mens’ fashion that was later adopted by women. Nowadays a man wearing them is generally considered odd at best. Men used to show their wealth by wearing lots of necklaces and bracelets and rings. Men with wealth are still generally considered to be attractive, but modern, western conventions say “no” to all of the jewelry. Beards were in fashion when my father was young, then they were out for a few decades, now they’re coming back again. The perms of the 80s are mercifully gone, hopefully never to return.

This was all considered attractive in the 80s. Image from www.80sfashion.org

This was all considered attractive in the 80s. Image from http://www.80sfashion.org

Modern fashion often borrows things from fashion of the past, but completely adopting the style of past decades might be a little bit weird. Being weird typically makes one less attractive to others, unless you are in a culture that values being weird.

Some cultures find people more attractive when they are slim and some cultures like full figures.

The human population is the largest it has ever been, and the internet allows people to come together and form new cultures at a rate that has never been seen before. Adopting the conventions of a culture tends to make one more attractive to other members of the culture.

The “bagel head” trend gained limited popularity in Japan a few years ago. Image from global.fncstatic.com

There is limitless variation to what individual cultures may find attractive, but there are no cultures that go against species-typic attractiveness by more than a little bit.

Individual Differences

Individual differences can cover both things that have been studied as well as the wide spectrum of unique things that people find attractive about one another.

People tend to like other people who are like them. This is called “assortative mating.” Political, moral and religious values can be a very important part of this. Liberals tend to date and marry liberals, Muslims tend to date and marry Muslims, vegans tend to date and marry vegans. The same goes for personality traits and even physical traits. There are obviously exceptions, but there is a clear trend.

How we feel about a person’s personality and behavior can influence how physically attractive we find them, and vise versa. If you have a negative experience with a person who is otherwise physically attractive, you will find them less physically attractive or even physically repulsive. The opposite is true as well.

Opposites don’t usually attract, but there are notable cases when they do. The most interesting case is probably the region of the immune system called the “major histocompatibility complex” or MHC. Humans and other vertebrates prefer mates who have different genes than their own in this region.

And sometimes there are just oddities that are unique to the individual. A friend of mine in college really liked guys wearing brown pants. There may not be anything substantial to explain about that.

This is just a primer on how scientists think about attraction. The few traits that I list are just examples and are by no means an exhaustive list of what we know (and there is still an enormous amount that we do not know). Of the things that I discuss, there are many nuances that I could not discuss for length. Indeed, whole books have been written on the topic. For more on this topic, see this book and this book and others. I plan to write more on this in the future, as well.

The point of this is not to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be attracted to. Everyone is different and the many aspects of attractiveness can interact in endless ways. People are attracted to whoever they are attracted to, even if it’s nobody.

What I hoped to accomplish here is to share a framework for how to think about the topic. The news is full of reports on new findings about human attraction. I hope it will be easier to put these studies into context after reading this post.

And try out this line tonight:

“Hey baby, I’m heterozygous at my MHC loci.”

Have a topic that you want me to cover? Let me know in the comments section.

Follow me on twitter @CGEppig

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About Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

I have a Ph.D. in biology and a passion for sharing my knowledge and understanding of the natural world with anyone who will listen. At a time where science is permeating public life more than ever, it is especially important that the public understand what science is, and how its findings intersect with their own lives. In addition to the more practical benefits of scientific literacy, I believe strongly that understanding the natural world enriches peoples lives. The man behind the curtain is not me — it is the real world, which we can discover through science, and it is beautiful. Let me show it to you.  Follow me on twitter @CGEppig. View all posts by Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

10 responses to “Hot or Not

  • Sarah

    Re: facial symmetry, I think the theory that symmetrical faces are inherently more beautiful has been falsified. I saw an article once that adjusted faces to show the symmetric and slightly asymmetric versions of the face, and very often slight asymetry was more beautiful.
    Similarly, your face would only be more attractive when symmetric if you took the mirror image of your good side
    http://www.lostateminor.com/2014/02/21/photography-series-showing-good-bad-sides-peoples-portraits/

    • Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

      Hi Sara, thanks for reading!
      There are a few different things going on here; I’ll try to get them all.
      1) I’m familiar with the study you are referencing, as well as the art project in your link. There are many studies showing that more symmetrical faces (and bodies) are more attractive. A single study showing that something else may be going on does not outweigh the rest.
      2) Relatedly, it is more computationally difficult to produce a symmetrical face that doesn’t look weird than one would expect. The easiest method for doing so, which involves splitting the face down the middle and mirroring it, makes perfectly symmetrical faces but usually ones that are out of proportion. for example, most people’s noses are slightly crooked or off center. This means that the mirrored face made from one side will have an unusually large nose and the other will have an unusually small nose. If the eyes in the original face are off center but a normal distance apart, the eyes in the mirrored images will either be too close or too far apart.
      If you take a large sample of real people’s faces and have other people rate them for attractiveness, symmetry will correlate strongly with attractiveness.
      If you take existing attractive faces and alter them to make them less symmetrical even by a little bit (it’s much easier to make a symmetrical face less symmetrical than it is to make an asymmetric face more symmetrical) they will be rated as less attractive. The degree to which they are less attractive matches the degree to which you made the faces less symmetrical.
      Some scientists have developed software that use more sophisticated methods for making existing faces more symmetrical. These methods can straighten the nose, align the eyes, etc. The more symmetrical faces produced by these methods are more attractive than the originals.
      3) Symmetry is a very important feature, but it is not the only thing going on. Higher symmetry makes faces more attractive all other things being equal. Just as with the other aspects of attractiveness, different factors may interact with one another. A face can be perfectly symmetrical but still unattractive if there are other factors that prevent it from being attractive.
      Thanks again for the comment! I hope this helps clear things up.

      • Lisa

        I think that more studies are showing that SYMMETRY is a lo w indicator of real beauty. It has some effect but a plain or homely features face is still plain even if both sides are the same. Strikingly beautiful features and bone structure are still beautiful with some assymetry. Check out the German study called Beauty Check. It closed by stating not all unattractive faces are asymmetrical and not beautiful faces are asymmetrical.

      • Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

        Hi Lisa,

        There is a complicated relationship between symmetry and attractiveness. I’m not familiar with the study you mention, but I don’t doubt its findings. It is easy to make a face that is perfectly symmetrical but very unattractive if it lacks appropriate hormone-mediated features, or is otherwise oddly-proportioned. But symmetry is still important.

      • Lisa

        No,babies have been shown to prefer beautiful features over SYMMETRY. If a face is plain SYMMETRY makes it look a little better true. But great beauty had to do with the features themselves and not that both sides are alike. Lena Dunham and Gwynneth Paltrow have highly symmetrical features. Liz Taylor and a young Lauren Hutton have some facial asymmetry. There are factors far more important in making a person a great beauty than perfect SYMMETRY. It causes someone to look a LITTLE NICER but that’s it. I’ve seen too many plain and even homely highly symmetrical faces. The features themselves weren’t pretty.

  • Sarahlove

    Loved this article! Did you know that a study was performed on attractiveness using babies as the judges? Babies are more attracted to a person with a symmetrical face. It starts early? Thoughts?

  • Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

    Thanks for reading! I am familiar with the study you’re speaking of. Many critics of evolutionary psychology argue that the traits that are attractive in humans are all products of culture. Newborn babies, who have not been exposed to culture, make excellent judges of species-typic attractiveness. This is just one line of evidence that certain aspects of attractiveness are hard-wired, rather than learned.

    • Sarahlove

      Yes! Interesting! I think attractiveness also crosses over into other senses other than visually pleasing. A persons smell or touch can attribute to the attractiveness factor. I wonder if that is hard wired or learned.

  • Christopher Eppig, Ph.D.

    You are absolutely correct. We know a lot about the role of smell in human attraction — this is actually what I went to grad school to study. Attraction to certain smells is almost certainly a combination of things that are hard-wired and things that are learned. I’ll be doing a post on this topic at some point in the future.

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