You and your best friend are in the college canteen grabbing a bite to eat. You're talking about your exam next week when a couple of guys sit down at a table near you. You can't keep your eyes off one of them while she’s into his friend. Neither of you can understand what the other sees in the guy she has the hots for.
Of course, this is pretty normal. About half the time people agree on whether or not they think someone is attractive. Things like symmetry in facial features are seen as beautiful the world over. But the other half of the time people totally disagree on whether they think someone is hot... or not.
Nature or nurture?
What are the reasons we find someone attractive? This was the question a group of US researchers got to asking themselves. On the one hand, genetics could explain why beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it could also be our life experiences that affect who we are physically drawn to.
To tease apart these two possibilities, the researchers found 547 pairs of identical twins and 214 pairs of non-identical twins of the same sex. They showed the twins 200 pictures of people's faces and asked them to rate how attractive they were.
By studying whether the identical and non-identical twins found the same faces attractive, the researchers were able to figure out if it’s mostly genetics or mostly the family environment we grow up in that explains why we’re attracted to someone.
Are our preferences the product of nature or nurture? Well, neither really, as it turns out.
In the study, the identical twins, with identical genes, were attracted to very different people. So that rules out genetics as a reason for what makes us swipe a face left or right. And the non-identical twins, who had different genes but grew up in the same home, also had very different feelings about whether someone is hot or not. So it can’t just be our family that teaches us our taste in attractiveness.
What’s left, then? Roughly speaking, it has to be... just all the stuff that happens to us in particular, as an individual, says researcher Dr Laura Germine. The unique details of our life experiences, things we don’t even have in common with our siblings. The friends we have at primary school. The star of a movie we like. The way our first boyfriend or girlfriend looked.
So once again, scientific research comes up with the hard facts to support what common sense told you anyway. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and many emotional experiences combine to shape the way we feel when we see a person’s face.
Test your taste in faces!
Is your taste in faces pretty average? Or do you have unusual preferences for what’s hot or not? Find out at Dr Germine’s brain research website, testmybrain.org. In the test 'Judging Face Attractiveness', after rating a collection of different faces, you learn how the way you judge attractiveness compares with everyone else.
Source: Individual Aesthetic Preferences for Faces Are Shaped Mostly by Environments, Not Genes (2015), Laura Germine, Richard Russell, P. Matthew Bronstad, Gabriëlla A.M. Blokland, Jordan W. Smoller, Holum Kwok, Samuel E. Anthony, Ken Nakayama, Gillian Rhodes, and Jeremy B. Wilmer.
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