Can you measure beauty?
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In 2006, Canadian filmmaker Mark McKinney created a short documentary titled "Not Pretty, Really."
The film, which has been viewed more than 580,000 times on YouTube, gathered a group of gorgeous female and male models together and asked them a simple question: "Do you know that you're really good looking?"
From their answers, and the way they flirt with the camera, it's obvious that they do know, although most are reluctant to say it outright. "I know that I'm not unfortunate looking," one woman allows.
Yet there was a downside, particularly for the women, Mr. McKinney said in a recent interview, because "they often felt they had to prove they were bright."
As one female model put it, "being the pretty girl, that often means you're not the smart girl, and you're not the funny girl, and you're not the nice girl -- you're just the pretty girl."
In less than three minutes, "Not Pretty, Really" captures much of our complicated relationship with physical appearance.
We admire good-looking people. We're attracted to them. We'll argue for hours over which celebrities are the most beautiful or handsome.
But we often envy them, and some of us have little patience when they claim that beauty is a burden.
Where does all this fascination -- or revulsion -- come from? Are we simply a celebrity-obsessed culture, or is there some deeper meaning to good looks?
For many of the scientists who have been researching facial beauty in recent decades, the answers lie with evolution.
Attractiveness doesn't exist just to sell cars, clothes or movies, they say. It is an ancient sign of evolutionary fitness that tells us someone will be good at producing healthy children, and it often pulls at us unconsciously.
In their early work, researchers found that even though there are some cultural differences in people's preferences, there also were three key universal components to beauty and handsomeness.
One is symmetry. The more symmetrical a face is, the more attractive it is -- although some studies have shown it is the least important universal standard.
The second feature is averageness.
It might seem illogical to say that especially good-looking people will be more average, but it's more a matter of not having highly unusual features, said Richard Russell, a face researcher at Gettysburg College.
"If you think of a specific feature like the eyes, if they're very wide-set, that will look strange, or if they're very narrowly set that won't look good, either. Generally, people aren't attractive if their features are really unusual."
One clever use of face research software has been the ability to merge the photos of several people into a composite image. If your own face is averaged with several others in that way, researchers say, you will almost always be better-looking.
The third universal factor in attractiveness is called "sexual dimorphism," which basically means more masculine features for men (bigger jaws, prominent brow lines) and more feminine features for women (smaller chins, bigger eyes).
It is this aspect of good looks that may differentiate supermodels and movie stars from the rest of us.
In one pioneering study, David Perrett of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland found that when he made a composite photo of 60 women and another composite of the 15 who had been judged the most attractive, and then exaggerated the differences between the two composites, he could produce a third composite that most observers thought was the prettiest of all.
In a study he did last year, Dr. Russell manipulated images of androgynous faces to change the contrast between the eyes and lips, and the rest of the face. The more he increased the contrast, the more female the faces looked.
It is no accident, he concluded, that makeup highlights exactly the same areas. "The results suggest that makeup may function by exaggerating a sexually dimorphic attribute -- facial contrast -- to make the face appear more feminine and hence attractive," he wrote.
When the new wave of face research began in the 1980s and 1990s, the conventional wisdom held that beauty was completely determined by culture, said Lisa DeBruine, co-director of the Face Research Lab at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
"But the early scientific studies did find that on average, someone who's very attractive in one culture will be judged as attractive in another culture," she said.
In recent years, the research has moved away from the common standards of beauty to exploring why people's preferences for faces vary based on the kind of society they live in, the social signals they get from others and even what hormones are surging through their bodies.
Much of this work has been done at the Aberdeen lab, where Dr. DeBruine and her husband and co-director, Ben Jones, sat down in October for a lengthy interview.
One of their findings is that men with more masculine faces prefer women with more feminine faces, and vice-versa.
To the extent that masculinity and femininity equate with attractiveness, that may not be a surprise, but evolutionary theory can help explain why this kind of "assortive mating" comes about, the researchers said.
Men generally care more about looks than women do, they said, and it's common for many men to be attracted initially to the best-looking women, no matter how slim their chances might be.
"A guy might think, 'Why should I settle for second best? Maybe I'll get lucky with one of these supermodels, and maybe one of them will throw me a bone,' " Dr. Jones said.
The reason it doesn't work out that way in real life, though, is that "there is a drive to reproduce, and if you want to reproduce you need to find a partner, and what you want to do is maximize the efficiency of how you deploy your resources, either your money or your energy."
In most cases, that means people end up pairing off with others who are similar in attractiveness.
That is why, "if you're walking through a mall with a group of your friends and you see people who are much different from each other [in attractiveness], it's very noticeable," said Dr. Jones.
Evolutionary theory also suggests that when the most attractive people pair up, it's not just the result of aesthetic one-upsmanship.
For women, the historic trade-off in men has been virility vs. commitment. Men with more masculine features generally have higher testosterone levels, but studies have shown they tend to have more sexual partners and are more likely to have affairs.
Women with more feminine features "may be able to attract more masculine-looking men into long-term relationships," Dr. DeBruine theorized, "or they could be aware of their own attractiveness and so they know they're not going to struggle to replace him with someone else" if he leaves.
Studies by the Aberdeen lab and others have shown that the preference for masculinity is also affected by women's hormone levels.
Women who were in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycles showed a greater preference for masculine faces than women who weren't fertile. That could mean that when they are able to get pregnant, women are attracted to men who will produce healthy offspring, but when they are not fertile, as they would be during pregnancy, they are more drawn to men who might be likely to stick around and help raise a family.
Jaime Confer, a postdoctoral student at the University of Texas, recently generated a lot of buzz with a study that approached the attractiveness issue from another angle.
Dr. Confer gave young men and women photos of someone of the opposite sex whose face and body were covered up. The participants were told to think of the hidden person as either a potential long-term partner, or someone with whom they could have a short-term relationship, and then were allowed to uncover either the face or the body.
Women tended to look at the men's faces in both cases. But more than half the men who were thinking about a one-night stand uncovered the woman's body, compared with just 25 percent who were considering a long-term relationship.
In evolutionary terms, that could mean that men thinking about a quick sexual relationship were interested in what a woman's body could tell them about her fertility, Dr. Confer said.
When some of her students protested that modern birth control would negate that motivation, she pointed out that evolution often gives us tendencies that don't fit with today's society.
For instance, she said, we are conditioned to like sweet and fatty foods, a craving that helped people survive famines in prehistoric times, but which contributes to obesity today.
"So I tell them, no matter how hard I try I cannot make a cookie taste bad. And in a similar way, men don't have to get a woman pregnant, but no matter how hard they try they can't stop being interested in their bodies."
One of the major tools of facial attractiveness research today is computer software that allows scientists to adjust faces in precise ways.
In the past, Dr. DeBruine said, people would be asked to judge the attractiveness of real-life photos, but researchers could never be sure which factor was driving the evaluation. Symmetry? Sexual features? Face shape?
The software allows them to change one aspect of faces and leave the others the same to test people's reactions.
In one study, the Aberdeen lab asked women from around the world to say whether they preferred male faces that had been manipulated to look either slightly more masculine or slightly more feminine.
The results showed a clear split between women in more affluent nations, who preferred the more feminized faces, and those in poorer nations, who preferred the more masculine faces.
One clear correlation, Dr. DeBruine said, was that women who preferred more virile faces lived in locations that had higher death and infection rates from disease.
"Masculinity can signal genetic health, so putting them in an environment where health is more important might shift them a little bit toward masculinity."
While the Aberdeen lab looks at facial attractiveness from a psychological and sociological standpoint, others have tackled the subject from other perspectives.
In Israel, computer scientist and physicist Gideon Dror trained a computer to recognize the differences between the faces that people had rated as attractive and unattractive.
The result was a "beautification engine," he said, which can improve the looks of almost any face.
The engine works better for female faces than male ones, though, said Dr. Dror, who works at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. He is not quite sure why, but suspects "there isn't as much of a common standard for male faces."
At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, neurologist Anjan Chatterjee and his colleagues have done brain imaging on people as they looked at attractive faces.
He discovered that areas throughout the brain become active when people are asked to decide whether a face is attractive; the better-looking it is, the more intense the activity.
One area he is particularly interested in is the cingulate gyrus, a horseshoe-shaped area in the middle of the brain.
The rear of the cingulate gyrus showed less activity when people looked at attractive faces, suggesting it may be an area for evaluating unattractive faces.
Research has shown that people who are clinically depressed have more activity in the rear of the cingulate gyrus and have trouble experiencing enjoyment. Dr. Chatterjee now would like to investigate whether depressed patients actually see attractive faces as ugly, or whether they can tell that a face is good-looking, but can't experience pleasure from it.
Mr. McKinney, the Canadian filmmaker, knows that attractiveness is a double-edged sword in his business, especially for women.
A member of the comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, Mr. McKinney said the emphasis on youth and good looks makes acting "a terrible profession for women, outside of theater."
He feels fortunate to work in comedy, "where being good-looking is kind of considered a disadvantage. To me, comedy is kinder."
First Published December 5, 2010 12:00 am