Source: Financial Times
Date: 30 April 2005

Science rewrites the rules of attraction

By Raj Persaud


Psychologists have long demonstrated that we tend to perceive physically attractive people as not just easy on the eye but more intelligent and competent as well. That this perception might not be strictly rational could be concluded from the finding that the beautiful are seen as better than the rest of us in such apparently unrelated tasks as piloting an aircraft.

This tendency to see the attractive as bearing a host of other desirable qualities also explains why an attractive defendant is likely to be given a more lenient sentence or even be let off by a jury. The effect is profound - both genders see physically attractive men and women as more intelligent and good.

Even very young children perceive better-looking teachers as more intelligent. As it is unlikely that children are prejudiced by personal biases arising from their own feelings of attraction or of falling in love, it would appear that something profound is at work.

The evolutionary psychologists Satoshi Kanazawa from the London School of Economics and Jody Kovar of the University of Pennsylvania in the US have published research that argues that the beautiful really are more intelligent.

Their paper, actually entitled: "Why beautiful people are more intelligent", rests on genetic and evolutionary principles. Women prefer more intelligent men, as has been repeatedly confirmed by research. Most men place physical attractiveness as their highest valued feature in women. So it follows that if there are genes for attractiveness and intelligence, over time these will tend to cluster in the products of liaisons between the good-looking and the intelligent.

A less palatable conclusion is that in a competitive market the less intelligent and less physically attractive are left to mate with each other.

Before the appalled turn the page in disgust at such a politically incorrect theory, it might be useful to consider the science here. Kanazawa and Kovar point out that physical attractiveness is not as superficial as is commonly held, and is definitely not merely in the eye of the beholder. Infants as young as two months gaze longer at a face that adults judge to be more attractive.

Twelve-month-olds also play significantly longer with facially attractive dolls. Because two to 12 months is not enough time for infants to have learnt the cultural values of beauty through socialisation, this suggests standards might be innate.

Cross-culturally, there is considerable agreement in the judgment of beauty among a host of racial and national groups, including those as widely separated as the Ache of Paraguay and the Chinese. In none of this research does the degree of exposure to western media have any influence on people's perception of beauty. This consensus appears to exist because it is possible to derive a mathematical formula that predicts how attractive a face or body is according to key proportions. The essential point is that attractiveness seems to be rooted in symmetry.

Attractive faces are more symmetrical than unattractive ones. The symmetry of your body and face also appears to be associated with how genetically fit you are and how many developmental setbacks you suffered in the womb and while growing up. Resistance to parasites and other pathogens has been shown to be related to how symmetrical bodies are.

Beauty is now seen by evolutionary biologists as a kind of "health certification" guaranteeing that if you mate with such a person you are mingling your genes with higher-quality genetic material.

How symmetrical a face is can now be measured from a scanned photograph, with a computer program measuring the sizes of, and distances between, various facial parts.

Such programs assign a single score for physical attractiveness, which correlates highly with scores of prettiness assigned by human judges. Beauty therefore appears to be an objective and quantitative attribute of individuals a bit like height and weight.

Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle, economists at the University of Texas and Michigan State University, published a study in the American Economic Review in the 1990s entitled "Beauty and the Labour Market", which found that relative to average- looking women, below-average-looking women are married to men with significantly less education.

Kanazawa and Kovar cite five previous studies that have found an association between physical attractiveness and intelligence, including a recent comprehensive meta-analysis (a pooling of all the data from a variety of studies). The authors of the meta-analysis are so convinced that physical attractiveness is a strong sign of superior intelligence that they dismiss the maxim "beauty is skin deep" as a myth.

But as the concept of intelligence is deeply controversial, evolutionary theorists have looked for a real world measure of success that should correlate with IQ. Irene Frieze led a team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh who, in their study of MBA graduates, found that more physically attractive men have significantly higher starting salaries and their advantage increases over time.

For women, attractiveness has no effect on starting salaries but better-looking women earn significantly more later in their careers. In their sample, men earn $2,600 more on average for each unit of attractiveness (on a five-point scale), and women earn $2,150 more.

Kanazawa and Kovar caution against the mistake of using attractiveness as a measure of intelligence and vice versa. They point out their finding is only of an association that, while statistically significant, is an imperfect one.

Certainly you should never choose the pilot of your aircraft merely on their looks.

* * *

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for Public understanding of Psychiatry and author of "The Motivated Mind" (Bantam, 12.99)




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