Why is it just looks that attract me?

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Daniel Haag-Wackernagel

What we perceive to be beautiful is neither a matter of taste nor a coincidence. The characteristics of sexual attractiveness signal health, vitality and fertility and have emerged as a reliable tool in the course of our evolution to assess potential sexual partners. Attractiveness is rated very highly in all cultures, but it does not always have advantages.

We continuously analyze other people without being aware of it. Man is an eye animal. In a split second, we can analyze someone else's facial features and make relatively reliable statements about age, health, current mood, and ethnic and socio-economic origins. In one test, people were able to judge the trustworthiness of a depicted person after just 33 milliseconds, and after 167 milliseconds the impression was so reliable that the test subjects usually no longer changed their mind. The “first impression” we make of others is often confirmed later, which speaks for the reliability of this recognition system. But why did we develop this ability?

Measured beauty

Both men and women judge the attractiveness of the opposite sex in the first encounter by appearance. While choosing a partner, we cannot have intensive conversations with all people who come into question as potential companions and explore their “value” in lengthy interactions. We have to make a quick decision, and evolution has designed attractiveness as a criterion of mutual attraction for this. The face plays the decisive role in the assessment. Falling in love at first sight, which is based exclusively on optical features, shows how important appearance is. Many just fall in love because of a picture. This is all the more understandable as positive character traits, which are of great importance in long-term relationships, are not immediately recognizable from the outside. There is hardly any other area where people seem to be more driven by their innate "instincts" than when choosing a partner.

Choice of partner and the perception of attractiveness serve to combine one's own genes as successfully as possible in order to generate offspring with optimal characteristics. Many recent studies speak for an innate predisposition to the evaluation of attractiveness. They show that the fundamental ideals of beauty differ in their substantial properties neither in time nor between human cultures. The Rubens women, repeatedly cited as a counterexample, may well be depicted a little more lavishly (which may reflect the barren time in which they were created) - in their proportions they correspond to the timeless ideals of beauty.

The attractiveness is very important, especially in the initial phase of the couple bond. If people come closer later, olfactory stimuli play a role, and only when you talk to someone can a voice and language analysis be carried out, which provides clues to intellectual and socio-economic characteristics.

It is difficult to escape the charm of beautiful and attractive people - they are preferred in everyday life. Today, top models are revered like goddesses and have a higher status than the pope or a state president. Studies show that attractive students achieve higher academic degrees on average and female students even build hierarchies of dominance based on attractiveness. In job applications, beauty can even be preferred to professional competence. Attractive children are punished less harshly in school and good-looking children receive less punishment in court, except when their attractiveness played a role in their crime, such as in the case of fraudsters.

Recognizing attractive features is innate in humans: even newborns prefer such faces and pay more attention to them than less attractive ones. In electoral experiments, attempts have been made to find out which facial features are rated as attractive by the opposite sex. A broad smile, large eyes and protruding cheekbones are attractive to both sexes. Certain features such as a large eye relief, a large eyebrow height or a thick lower lip are only found in women.

Particularly interesting, because they are typically female or male, are features that are attractive to one gender but unattractive to the other. A large head height and wide pupils appear attractive in women and unattractive in men, a strong chin is attractive in men, while it is rated negatively in women. Symmetrical faces are rated as more attractive than less symmetrical ones.

Experiments with higher animal species show that males with high body symmetry have better chances of mating with females than less symmetrical ones. A high symmetry reflects a stable embryonic development, which is based, among other things, on a resistance to diseases and parasites and a certain tolerance to toxins. In addition, a high symmetry can indicate the absence of harmful mutations that manifest themselves in the structure of the body and face. In animals, symmetry is used to identify healthy and fit partners. The preference for partners with a symmetrical face and body could also be demonstrated in humans. Men with high symmetry were rated better in tests and particularly symmetrical sexual partners were also more popular than the less symmetrical.

Is Average Nice?

In election trials, regardless of the cultural background, the same female faces are always rated as attractive. These faces have very specific proportions. If normal faces are merged into an “average face” by “morphing” (overlaying images), this is considered to be more attractive than the original faces. Such results led to the assumption that attractiveness is to be equated with average. This theory has a lot to offer, since a preference for an average face would avoid deviations from the norm due to illness, for example, which would be in the interests of healthy offspring. In selection experiments, the average images of dogs, birds and even clocks were also preferred to the original images, which shows that humans show a general preference for the average.

However, other experiments showed that particularly attractive women's faces differ from the average face. Whether a woman's face is considered attractive does not depend on ethnic origin or personal taste. That is why the same models can be advertised worldwide, as their faces have a «universal beauty».

In both men and women, faces with childlike features are particularly attractive. In behavioral research one speaks of the child pattern: a large head with a dominant forehead region, large, round eyes, a small, short nose and a small, round chin, a pout with thick lips, round cheeks and elastic, soft skin. The stimulus combination of this scheme works across species boundaries and triggers caring behavior and feelings of affection. We find a young puppy just as cute and attractive as a bitch might find our babies attractive. Therefore, female mammals can adopt young animals of other species when they have lost their own young.

Cosmetics can be used to artificially reinforce the characteristics of the child's scheme: Make-up enlarges the eyes, lipstick simulates a child's pout and blush emphasizes the cheek region. Women's faces are rated as more attractive if they have been artificially adapted to the child pattern. While children hardly show any gender-specific facial features and enter puberty with almost identical muscle, fat and bone proportions, the typical male and female features are then shaped under the influence of sex hormones.

The typically masculine, dominant male face is characterized by a strong, wide and angular lower jaw, squinted and deep-set eyes, thick, deep-set eyebrows and thin lips. The strong lower jaw as a manifestation of a high testosterone level and rather thin lips as a sign of a low estrogen level are attractive. The typically masculine male face is interpreted as the face of the successful hunter: The large mouth and wide nostrils should ensure an optimal supply of air, while the thick brows protect the eyes and wick away sweat. Women find men with facial features that indicate ideal hormone levels and thus good health particularly attractive.

Health and fertility are attractive to both sexes. Studies show, however, that men with excessive dominant-masculine characteristics ("brutal faces") are rejected by women: They are perceived as unfriendly, threatening, unreliable, controlling, manipulative, selfish and violent. An overly aggressive and dominant man can be dangerous to the woman and her children, considering that most of the violence is committed within families and relationships.

The female hormones are responsible for the full lips and the other typically female fat deposits that are attractive to men. An attractive female face is a combination of child schema and characteristics of sexual maturity. The typical attractive facial features of a woman are created by a high level of estrogen and a low level of androgen during puberty, which are at the same time an expression of high fertility. In a sense, a woman's fertility can be read on her face.

Cycle and attractiveness

Until recently, it was assumed that women did not have pronounced "oestrus" during the fertile period of ovulation. However, recent research shows that they prefer more masculine men during these days. In general, women rate faces that are slightly above average in terms of their masculinity as more attractive. During their fertile days - characterized by high estrogen and low progesterone levels - they prefer even more masculinized faces. A high willingness to reproduce in women during this time is thus manifested in an increased preference for men with pronounced masculine characteristics.

But if a woman takes the pill and thus no longer exhibits the hormonal changes typical of the "heat season", the preference for additional masculinized faces is omitted. Some researchers speculate that the high divorce rate could also be related to the fact that women take the pill while choosing a partner, opting for overly feminine men through hormonal "castration", who they no longer like when they stop taking the pill, which they then do during their fertile period Tend to affair with more masculine men.

Women appear more attractive to men during their fertile days. For example, lap dancers (a form of entertainment widespread in the USA in which the dancers sit on the men's lap) have significantly higher tip income during their fertile days than outside or when they take the pill. With this investigation it could be shown, contrary to earlier views, that men can perceive the fertile days of women very well, which is also in the sense of procreation. Women look more attractive in photos during the fertile phase. During this time, in response to erotic images, they even show increased activity of the zygomaticus muscle, which is one of the laughing muscles.

Prof. Dr. Daniel Haag-Wackernagel

is Professor of Biology at the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel.

So beautiful people have advantages in many areas - but attractiveness can also have a negative effect. Voters judge politicians primarily by their appearance, and even children can use portrait photos of unknown politicians to predict who will win the election. But in spite of all expectations, attractiveness tends to reduce the chances of being elected: the highest probability of being elected is apparently candidates who do not look particularly attractive, but exude competence. The only hope that remains is that people will be able to read real competence from their faces. And some consolation for losers in the elections: The unelected are probably just too beautiful for politics.


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