Attention changes perceptions of facial attractiveness

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There is a long history of evidence that identifies attention as a powerful modulator of many visual behavior performances. Tasks have been designed to test its influence on stimulus detection, discrimination and a wide range of other aspects of visual processing, but less is known about attention’s impact on the way an individual perceives things subjectively.

Existing research has demonstrated a significant influence of attention on simple features of visual stimuli, such as contrast, color saturation and perceived speed. Recent efforts based on these findings aim to discover if attention has the same impact on perceptions of more complicated visual constructs, like faces.

A 2016 article in Psychological Science describes three experiments that examine the relationship between focused attention and complex judgements of facial attractiveness.

Sixteen participants were included in experiment one. After being trained with visual cues to enforce attentional focus they viewed a pair of images, one of which would follow attentional focusing. Two-thirds of subjects were shown pictures of different people then asked to select the face that they found more attractive. The results showed that cued images were chosen more often than those without induced attentional focus. All other subjects saw two images of the same face but with differing contrasts and also tended to select cued images as the more attractive option, demonstrating that the variance was not a result of individual differences between faces.

Experiment 2 evaluated the duration of this attention biasing effect, based on previous evidence that external attentional cues (such as verbal or visual commands) only generate biases for a limited amount of time. The design repeated the first experiment but with measurements being obtained after both short and long intervals of time following the initial application of attentional focus. In line with previous findings, the effect was only present in the short interval group. This evidence further supports the role of a biasing attentional influence in judgements of attractiveness.

The third and final experiment repeated the original design once more but asked participants to select the picture with more contrast instead of the more attractive. As expected, more contrast was noticeable after attention cueing, confirming the presence of a biasing effect. In conjunction, the findings of these experiments point to attention having a significant impact on high-level visual processes, like the perception of facial attractiveness. This observation is compatible with previous evidence that attention can have a similar impact on simpler aspects of visual processing.