A series of experiments in China found that athletes with better performance in sports were considered to have more attractive faces. The effect was dependent on gender and the sport discipline. Additionally, participants were able to distinguish between athletes competing in two different disciplines based on their facial features. The study was published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.
In social interactions, lots of information is derived from facial features. Most often, it is sufficient to take a quick look at one’s face and derive a wealth of information about the individual. These include age, gender, and attractiveness. But people will often also make inferences about pronounced habits of the person, personality traits, or health status based on how one’s face looks. An important part of the evaluation of another person comes from information derived from the face.
This evaluation is based on the physical features of the face, but also on information that is not an integral part of the face. Much information can be derived by combining facial expressions with our knowledge of the social situation we are in. In terms of physical features, symmetrical faces and female faces with more feminine features are generally considered more attractive.
With male faces, the situation is not so clear. While some studies report that male faces with more pronounced masculine features are seen as more attractive, other studies reported male faces with more pronounced feminine features to be more attractive. Physical features such as skin color, texture and eye size are also related to attractiveness.
Researchers studying the evolutionary origin of the importance of facial features for evaluation of other individuals have suggested that there must be a link between facial attractiveness and the “survival value” of the individual, primarily reflected through health and the ability of the individual to overcome challenges important for survival. This means that observing an individual facing challenges would impact the evaluation of facial attractiveness. However, most studies evaluated faces of ordinary people in daily environments.
Study author Xianyou He and his colleagues wanted to explore the relationship between facial attractiveness and athletic performance.
“Our team has always been interested in topics related to aesthetics, and we look forward to finding evidence of ‘good is beautiful, beautiful is good’ in daily life, not just in psychology lab,” explained He, a professor and the Dean of the School of Psychology at South China Normal University. “In nature, robust creatures tend to have a beautiful appearance, and we wondered if the same pattern was true in human society. Athletes are undoubtedly a group to watch, and their spectacular performance brings us aesthetic pleasure, which makes us want to pay more attention to whether this physical superiority will be reflected in the face.”
The researchers hypothesized that the connection between athletic performance and facial attractiveness might be influenced by the type of sport and the gender of the athlete. They believe that male athletes who excel in endurance and explosive sports may be perceived as more attractive when they perform well, while female athletes who excel in flexibility and muscle control may be seen as more attractive when they perform well.
The researchers also hypothesized that people can identify athletes from different sports based on their facial features, including their level of attractiveness. To test these ideas, the researchers conducted four experiments.
In experiment 1, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of faces of top 35 athletes from the 2019 world ranking in track and field, aquatics, triathlon and gymnastics. Athletes were both male and female. Pictures were taken of top athletes from all of these disciplines for a total of 240 pictures.
Participants were 212 young people (18-26 years of age) and they were not told who the people in the pictures were. Eight participants who recognized the athletes in the pictures were excluded from the study.
In experiment 2, participants were told that faces presented to them were athletes. A short description of the sport the athletes participate in was given. The same set of faces was used, but they were now presented in groups of six.
Participants were asked to predict what the results would be if these athletes competed with each other (the sports they compete in were all individual sports).
After making the rankings, participants rated the attractiveness of faces of those athletes. Most of the participants of this experiment were the same as in experiment 1. There were 57 new participants. Experiment 3 was the same as experiment 2 with the only difference being that the faces used were those of athletes competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games.
After finding that ratings given by participants in previous experiments depended on specific sports athletes competed in, in experiment 4, researchers used face morphing software to merge faces of different athletes competing in the same sport. They merged faces of athletes competing in floor exercise and faces of athletes competing in triathlon.
Participants were asked to predict whether the face presented belonged to a triathlon or a floor exercise competitor. They were also asked to rate the attractiveness of the faces.
Results of experiment 1 showed that athletes competing in the 100-meter sprint had substantially lower average attractiveness ratings compared to the other three sports, while athletes competing in the 3-meter diving had the highest attractiveness ratings.
Those with higher positions in competition rankings tended to be rated as more attractive (although participants did not know they were athletes or how successful they are when rating their attractiveness).
Experiment 2 showed that the link between attractiveness and success in sport depended on gender, but also on the sport discipline. In the 100-meter sprint, participants expected males with more attractive faces to rank better, but women with more attractive faces to score worse. For the 3-meter dive, participants expected both male and female athletes with more attractive faces to rank better. For triathlon, there was no association between attractiveness and rankings. In floor exercise, more attractive women, but not men, were also expected to rank better.
“It should be recognized that for different sports, the role played by physical appearance may vary. This may be because facial features can reflect information about body shape, hormone levels, and genetics,” He said.
Experiment 3 confirmed the finding that more attractive women were expected to have worse rankings in 100-meter sprint, but the association between attractiveness and rankings was absent in males in this sport. More successful females, but not males, tended to be rated as more attractive in triathlon. Results for the 3-meter dive and floor exercises were the same as in experiment 2.
Participants in experiment 4 were able to identify the (merged) faces of triathlon athletes better than they could identify floor exercises athletes. They were more accurate when judging female faces. Overall, this experiment showed that participants could effectively distinguish between two different types of athletes through facial features.
“In Experiment 4, we performed face mixing for athletes from each of the two sports and then asked participants to choose which sport these new faces came from,” He told PsyPost. “We were surprised to find that participants showed a fairly high rate of correctness, as this meant that athletes from different sports showed fairly significant differences in face characteristics. We do not know whether this difference is due to congenital or acquired causes, which may lead to additional findings.”
The results of the study supported the hypothesis about a link between facial features and physical qualities. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all participants were young people and they assessed static images that contained faces only. In natural conditions, attractiveness perception is based on a much wider range of details.
“It is important to note that these findings obtained from our research may be interesting, but should not be over-interpreted or generalized,” He said. “Facial attractiveness is only one of the multiple factors associated with athletic performance; other aspects such as skill, endurance, and perseverance are required to be a good athlete. In addition, facial features and individual attractiveness are a subjective topic, so these results may only apply to specific cultural groups.”
The study, “Good performance-high attractiveness effect: an empirical study on the association between athletes’ rankings and their facial attractiveness“, was authored by Wanyue Li, Hongyan Zhu, Kaili Zhao, Huanjie Zhu, Xingang Wang, and Xianyou He.