Study on facial adiposity suggests familiarity influences what we find attractive

Your visual diet of faces influences what you find attractive, according to new research.

The study, published May 18, 2017 by the journal Human Nature, examined how the appearance of a person’s population influences their facial preferences. The researchers were interested in examining facial adiposity in particular — meaning how much fat a person stores their face.

“I am interested in examining which factors influence what it is that we find attractive,” explained the study’s corresponding author, Carlota Batres of University of St Andrews. “So far I had examined the influence of the internet, media, age of puberty, harshness of the environment, stress, and violence on facial preferences. However, I had a suspicion that the way people around us look also influences our preferences so I wanted to test that.”

In the study, 43 men and 65 women from Malaysia and 69 men and 83 women from El Salvador rated the attractiveness of digitally-manipulated face pairs.

Batres and her colleagues found that the facial characteristics common to each person’s population were considered to be the most attractive. Batres said the study shows that “familiarity does influence what we find attractive.”

“Our results showed that participants from rural areas preferred heavier-looking female faces than participants from urban areas,” she told PsyPost. “We also found that the female faces from the rural areas were rated as looking heavier than the female faces from the urban areas. This suggests that the faces that we are exposed to contribute to our preferences.”

Previous studies had found that individuals from rural areas found women with heavier-looking faces more attractive than individuals from urban areas. In their news study, the researchers found this was true in both Malaysia and El Salvador. Both male and female subjects in those rural areas preferred heavier-looking female faces.

“We found that the females from the rural areas were rated as looking heavier than the females from the urban areas, however, their body mass indexes did not differ,” Batres explained to PsyPost. “One possible explanation for this is that prolonged exposure to cortisol (a hormone produced in response to stressors) leads to higher fat deposition on the side of the face, and since rural environments tend to be harsher than urban environments, women in rural areas may store higher levels of fat in their faces even if they do not have a higher level of fat overall.

“Past research has found that people can accurately estimate a person’s weight based on their face alone. Our results, however, provide evidence that this finding cannot be generalized between subpopulations, which has important implications for future research investigating weight preferences through the use of faces.”

Of course, there are many factors that influence attractiveness and further research is needed.

“One limitation of our study is that we cannot tease apart the influence of familiarity from other factors that influence face preferences,” Batres told PsyPost. “For instance, exposure to the media is greater in urban areas than rural areas and therefore it is difficult to disentangle the everyday familiarity effect from the media familiarity effect. It would be interesting to examine how face preferences change as people migrate between areas that differ in the visual appearance of the population but do not differ in other factors known to influence face preferences.”

The study, “Familiarity with Own Population’s Appearance Influences Facial Preferences“, was also co-authored by Mallini Kannan and David I. Perrett.