People tend to view attractive others in a favorable light, perceiving them to have more positive traits compared to unattractive people. A new study published in the journal Social Neuroscience presents evidence that these positive traits more often relate to warmth — such as friendliness and trustworthiness — compared to competence.
Psychology studies have repeatedly shown that people tend to infer positive psychological characteristics from attractive faces. These traits tend to fall under one of two categories: warmth and competence. Warmth reflects a person’s social character and the way they integrate with other people (e.g., sociability, trustworthiness). Competence reflects a person’s ability to work toward their own goals (e.g., intelligence, goal achievement).
But the authors of the new research wondered which of the two traits takes precedence over the other when it comes to the attractiveness stereotype. Are people more likely to infer warmth or competence from an attractive face?
“We all know facial attractiveness is very important, especially for strangers who meet for the first time,” said study author Juan Yang, the head of the Personality and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Southwest University in Chongqing. “After they met, they would consider whether they are going to keep in touch with each other and make a friend with this person. People usually want to make friends with highly facial attractiveness person. Why? What’s their expectation about this friendship? To be friends learning from each other or caring about each other?”
Yang and her team proposed that inferences about a person’s warmth take precedence over inferences about their competence since a stranger’s warmth is more important for survival. When faced with a stranger, it is more important to decipher whether or not their intentions toward us are good (i.e., how warm they are) than whether or not they are capable of acting on these intentions (i.e., how competent they are). The researchers devised a study to test this theory using both behavioral and neural data.
A sample of 42 young women with an average age of 20 was recruited for the study. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data was recorded while the participants viewed a series of attractive and nonattractive faces. Over various trials, the faces were paired with either warmth or competence traits and participants rated how well each trait described the person in the photo. At the end of the trials, the participants rated the attractiveness of each face.
Overall, the results revealed that attractiveness ratings were positively related to both warmth and competence ratings — participants tended to rate the attractive faces as warmer and more competent than the unattractive faces. But in line with the researchers’ hypothesis, attractiveness ratings were more strongly correlated with warmth ratings compared to competence ratings.
“Although people expect individuals with highly facial attractiveness have highly warmth and competence traits; the warmth part values more,” Yang told PsyPost. “People would rather make friends with someone with high facial attractiveness because they think these people are more caring.”
Moreover, the fMRI data revealed that brain areas involved in trait judgment — the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and temporoparietal junction (TPJ) — were more strongly activated when the participants were evaluating the warmth of a face compared to the competence of a face. Attractiveness ratings were also more strongly tied to the activation of these brain regions during the warmth judgments. Finally, brain areas implicated in judging a person’s attractiveness — the dmPFC and dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) — were also more highly activated during evaluations of warmth.
Yang and colleagues say their findings suggest that warmth judgments are more important during social interactions. “This may be the product of survival and adaptation in the process of evolution,” the authors explain, “that is, when an individual meets a stranger, he will judge the stranger’s intention (friendly or not; warmth judgment) and then judge the stranger’s ability to act on his intention (whether the stranger can cause harm to himself or not; competence judgment).”
The study was limited by a female-only sample. Since past evidence suggests that women pay more attention to warmth than men do, this may have influenced the findings. The researchers say that gender differences should be investigated in future studies.
“Since both participates and experimental materials in our study are female, the future experiments will continue to include male participates and male face materials,” Yang said. “It is necessary to pay attention to this point in the generalization of the present experimental results.”
“The main goal of the Personality and Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab is to investigate how brain shape personality and interact with social behavior,” Yang added. “We would like to ask a question from the perspective of social cognitive psychology, and to solve it using neuroscience, physiology or endocrinology technology. Currently, we are interested in the neural representation of self-esteem and individual differences of psychosocial stress.”
The study, “Facial attractiveness is more associated with individual warmth than with competence: Behavioral and neural evidence“, was authored by Mengxue Lan, Maoying Peng, Xiaolin Zhao, Haopeng Chen, Yadong Liu, and Juan Yang.