What Scientists Have to Say about Facial Beauty

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It isn’t necessarily fair, but there is a substantial body of research demonstrating that being perceived as beautiful or handsome offers some advantages. Physical attractiveness has important social consequences.

It may not be surprising that attractive individuals fair better in the world of dating. What you may not know is that beauty is also associated with more plentiful and stronger-bonded platonic relationships.

Beauty also correlates with upward economic mobility, especially for women. In mock interviews, those deemed to be attractive based on certain traits (more on this later) are significantly more likely to be hired for a position. This is true even when they have comparable education and experience to other applicants.

Good looks even influences perception of seriousness of committed crimes and that more attractive people pay lower bail, on average.

There seems to be an attractiveness stereotype. People perceived as beautiful are viewed as more competent, kinder, and in general as having more socially desirable traits than those considered as less attractive.

This article sums up the latest findings about beauty from a scientific perspective. It appears that the eyes tend to prefer or be more attracted to certain facial features and there may be some evolutionary reasons why.

Where Does Our Idea of Beauty Come From?

It is an understandably common misconception that our ideas of beauty come from cultural influences such as movies and magazines. Most of us believe that we are “taught” what is beautiful based on the images presented to us throughout our life.

If this were true, that would mean that what defines attractiveness would differ based on culture and era. It would also mean that babies should have very little context for beauty, and therefore not know what it is. None of that is true.

How Babies Perceive Beauty

It turns out that we are only minimally influenced by culture and experience. There are some human facial features that seem to be universally and reliably appraised as attractive, and even babies agree.

How can we measure what infants understand about beauty? We know that children stare at things that are interesting and appealing to them, such as bright colors.

In one study, infant’s preferences were calculated based on eye-tracking technology. The results indicate that babies between 12 and 24 months old display visual preferences for things such as facial symmetry and features that are typically associated with facial femininity. These are among the same preferences that grown-ups have. Infant’s appreciation for attractiveness of adult faces are in alignment with that of adults.

This point about infants is crucial in that babies have not yet been programmed by culture, advertisements, or celebrity images.

It answers the question, how would someone perceive beauty if their brain were scrubbed of all the societal influences? Their visual attraction to certain facial characteristics represents a more pure neurobiological response.

How Is Beauty Defined?

The commonly used phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ implies that visual beauty is this undefinable, mysterious thing. However, what we know to be true is that scientists have boiled down human facial attractiveness to a few key determinants and that there is fairly tight consensus across time, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds.

The basic technique used to determine this is having study participants review and give their impression of pictures of various faces. There is then analysis of what attributes were common to the more favorably rated faces.

Researchers can also digitally manipulate features of the images and observe how that influences opinion. For example, making the jaw of a man more square in an image and seeing how that influences response to the face.

Below are some of the characteristics and the evolutionary theory behind why those attributes may be sought after.

While Verywell aims to be inclusive to all genders, sexualities, etc. please note that much of the scientific research conducted on the topic of beauty and attractiveness, is still based on the surveying of cis-gendered, heterosexual men and women.

Symmetry

Symmetry refers to the extent to which one half of an object is the same as the other half. Our faces are not exactly the same on both halves. Symmetry is one of those qualities that consistently rates as desirable across cultures, and even across species, when it comes to mate selection.

When images were manipulated in no other way than to make one side of a face more closely resemble the other side of the face, that dramatically increased the likelihood of that person being regarded as more attractive when compared to the unaltered image.

This may be related to the evolutionary drive to reproduce. In men, a symmetrical body correlates to increased sperm count and sperm health. Breast symmetry in women is associated with increased fertility.

Secondary Sexual Characteristics

This refers to the qualities that are associated with the way in which a face becomes more masculinized or feminized following puberty. Typically, masculine features such as a large jaw and a prominent brow ridge are associated with dominance and handsomeness. The same is true of things such as fuller lips and higher or fuller cheeks in women.

Women with more feminized faces were found to have higher circulating estrogen, on average. Similarly, increased testosterone relates to more typically “manly” features. These outward indications of a person’s greater hormonal levels are valued in potential mates.

The Appearance of Health

Features that give indication of health and vitality are prized and considered alluring. This includes things such as skin color. Not any particular color but homogeneity of color, as in evenness of skin tone. This, along with smooth texture, fewer blemishes and lines are associated with health of facial skin.

These qualities are felt to signify health even when someone is shown a patch of skin without a full face. Skin condition is a particularly useful marker of current health status.

Redness of cheeks and lips may signal fitness and more oxygenated blood which explains the association between redness and attractiveness. Women are seen as more attractive by men when presented with red backgrounds or when wearing red clothing relative to other colors.

A pale or sallow complexion, or a high waste to hip ratio in women are indicators of illness or a suboptimal metabolic picture and are perceived as less appealing.

Indicators of Personality

People were rated as more attractive when their features seemed to indicate socially valued traits such as kindness, contentedness or cheerfulness. Although facial expressions are transient, faces shown smiling are almost always rated as more beautiful than neutral faces. Particularly when combined with direct eye contact or when the smile is perceived as directed at the person rating the picture.

Earlier in the article, it was mentioned that masculine features were seen as more attractive. That is more true for women who were already romantically partnered, who were around their time of ovulation (when women are most fertile) or in the context of short-term relationship seeking. 

During other phases of the menstrual cycle, a more feminized version of a male face is preferred. Instead of dominance, feminine traits are associated with honesty, warmth, and being cooperative. In other words, features that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with fertility but with stable parenting.

Partner Status

Research shows that men labelled as married were more alluring than men labelled as single. Women also rate men as more enticing when they are shown as surrounded by other women than when they are shown alone or with other men.

People also perceive someone as more attractive, in part, if their prior romantic partner had features associated with the standard of beauty.

Other Influencers of Attractiveness

An interesting quality that determines how fetching you will find someone is what you look like. Women seem to have an aversion to opposite-sex faces that looked like them. When men were looking at opposite-sex faces that had similar facial features to them, there was an aversion to those images, but only when asked to consider the partner for short-term relationships. However, this is not true regarding longer term unions. This may explain why you may have noticed that couples sometimes resemble each other.

This may be due to the fact that the part of the brain felt to be responsible for interpreting beauty called the cingulate gyrus, is also related to self-assessment.

Other studies have shown that for hair and eye color, the best predictor of a partner’s traits are the opposite-sex parent’s color traits. Individuals also seem to be most drawn to faces in the age range consistent with the age their parents were when they were born.

Furthermore, women who rate their childhood relationship with their father as positive, show stronger attraction to men whose face proportions are similar to their father’s face.

A Word From Verywell

Although this is what some of the latest research on beauty tells us, these studies cannot inform us of how beautiful it is to meaningfully bond with someone who is funny, intelligent, and thoughtful. Not everything can be measured. The loveliest of things are on the inside and unquantifiable.

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