Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Do Other People Determine What We Find Attractive?

A recent study suggests that people could be likely to adjust how attractive they find a face based on how attractive other people say that face is. There have been studies before saying that people will adjust their reporting of attractiveness based on the opinions of others—which held true here—but this study has the added gee-whiz factor of measuring reward centers of the brain, which correlated with the self-reported shift in attraction.

But the study needs a closer look—any study does, especially one that might seem to confirm insecurities, particularly women's insecurities. (Am I alone in the insecurity bit? I quote from a fellow I was unfortunate enough to go out with: "The rest of the world doesn't know what it's missing by overlooking you. You're beautiful!" Is it just me?)

1) Not only was the grand total of study participants exactly 14 people, all 14 of those people were men, and all of them were between the ages of 18 and 26.
What would the study have found if it had tested women as well? Certainly I don't think women are more immune to society's sway than men—and contrary to what some women (and men) have told me, neither do I believe that women have a broader spectrum of what they find attractive, nor that we're better able to find a man's "inner beauty" than they are ours.

What I do think is true is that women's looks are often spoken of in terms of currency, as though every woman begins with value X and that certain features incrementally add to that value. Now, this study wasn't about those features; it was about what others supposedly thought. I'm pretty sure that even people (men and women alike) who don't view women in terms of market value have been pretty well trained to think that there's a currency attached to women's appearance, like it or not—and currency is worthless unless we know that others around us assign it value. As a culture, we're more easily able to separate a man's value from his appearance; had women been asked to rate men, would we be so eager to change our number based on what others think?

2) The experiment measured neural pathways connected to financial rewards, not pathways connected to sensual pleasure. This experiment doesn't measure response to beauty at all; it measures calculated value.
(The researchers made this clear in their writings, but as so frequently happens, the journalists who wrote up the story morphed it.) And the study sample—men between the ages of 18 and 26—isn't exactly a population known for shying away from financial risk, you know? We don't know if the participants intrinsically changed their mind about whether a particular face was more or less beautiful; we only know that the perceived value increased or decreased according to other people's input.

3) Hot-or-not studies are sort of gross, right?
We can all agree on this? I mean, in college I did all sorts of shit for money in the psych lab, but I'm really icked out by the thought of being paid to sit there and rate faces on a 1-7 scale. But damn if people don't love to read about them! It validates our more shameful moments of being judgmental, and simultaneously serves to keep us wondering where we'd fall in the mix.

4) Attractiveness is not the same as beauty.
Of all the maxims about beauty, the only one I fully believe to be true is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder—that is, we really can't help what we find beautiful. The crowd might nudge us one way or another, but…if you're not a Gisele kinda lady, you're not a Gisele kinda lady, knowwhatimean? And this study, at first glance, flies in the face of that.

But attractiveness is something that is a little more generic, a little more across the board—and a little more easily agreed upon. Of the women I've talked with, many of them have said, unprompted, that pretty much anyone can be attractive with the right sort of effort; beauty, on the other hand, is a more elusive quality, one that might be easily mimicked but not easily faked. We find what is rare, beautiful; we find what we can agree upon, attractive. That's not to say we're all attracted to the same things (we'll save evolutionary theory for another post!); in general, there are certain things we all find attractive, but what we find beautiful tends to be more individual, in my definition of it. It's less easily packaged; it's even less easily rated, and it's not something that we could change even if we wanted to.

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