People tend to be more attracted to opposite-sex individuals who bear a resemblance to themselves, according to new research published in Evolution and Human Behavior. The findings shed light on the intricate factors influencing our perceptions of beauty and attraction during face-to-face interactions. This phenomenon suggests that contrary to the clichéd notion of “opposites attract,” there’s a deeper, subconscious drive that draws us towards people who share some common facial features.
For years, psychologists have sought to unravel the mysteries of human attraction, and prior research has hinted at various factors influencing our perceptions of attractiveness. This includes facial features, but it wasn’t entirely clear how these features influenced real-life interactions where people engage in face-to-face conversations, exhibit different expressions, and convey their personalities.
Most studies in this realm have involved participants rating photographs or computer-generated faces, which, while informative, don’t entirely capture the complexities of real-life interactions. The new study sought to bridge this gap by employing face-to-face interactions, where participants could rate each other in person. This approach aimed to shed light on how people perceive attractiveness when confronted with a dynamic, multifaceted human interaction.
“Facial attractiveness is generally an interesting topic. I think everyone wonders why certain faces are more attractive than others. We also wanted to clarify whether past facial attractiveness findings — which relied on ratings of facial images and computer-generated faces — could be replicated in a real-life, face-to-face setting,” explained lead author Amy A.Z. Zhao, a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in the Centre for Psychology and Evolution.
The research team conducted an experiment involving 682 participants and 2,285 speed-dating interactions. During these interactions, participants of the opposite sex engaged in 3-minute conversations, after which they rated each other on two crucial aspects: facial attractiveness and kindness and understanding.
The researchers didn’t rely solely on subjective judgments. They also analyzed the facial images of the participants, using objective measures such as facial masculinity, averageness, and similarity between interaction partners. This approach aimed to provide a more accurate and nuanced understanding of what influences our perceptions of attractiveness and other interpersonal qualities.
Zhao and her colleagues found that individuals who possessed geometrically average faces were consistently rated as more attractive by their interaction partners. This finding suggests that there’s a certain charm in having a face that falls within the norm.
However, when researchers examined the roles of both facial averageness and facial similarity together, a nuanced revelation emerged. It turned out that, while averageness significantly influenced perceptions of attractiveness, facial similarity also played a crucial role. Partners who had facial features resembling those of their interaction counterparts were deemed more attractive. This indicates that sharing some common facial characteristics can boost one’s appeal.
Ethnicity was another significant factor influencing attraction. Participants received higher facial attractiveness ratings from partners of the same ethnicity compared to those from a different ethnicity. This indicates that there may be an underlying preference for individuals who share one’s ethnic background.
Interestingly, the study showed that the impact of facial masculinity on attractiveness depended on gender. In males, higher facial masculinity was linked to increased rated facial attractiveness. In contrast, in females, higher facial masculinity had the opposite effect, leading to lower attractiveness ratings. However, the male effect disappeared when the researchers accounted for ethnicity and ethnic concordance.
Beyond mere physical attractiveness, the study also delved into perceptions of kindness and understanding. While facial averageness did not predict ratings of kindness and understanding, facial similarity did. Participants rated partners who shared facial features as kinder and more understanding, reinforcing the idea that similarity can foster a sense of kinship and trustworthiness.
“We found that participants rated partners who had average faces and faces similar to their own as more attractive,” Zhao told PsyPost. “And people rating facially similar partners rated each other as more kind, regardless of ethnicity. Our findings suggest that people’s preference for facial averageness can be attributed to facial similarity, which sparks a sense of kinship, comfort, and familiarity with those who look like them.”
“Our results are especially interesting because our study only measured facial traits (i.e. averageness, similarity, and masculinity) via facial landmarks. It is impressive that facial structure alone could predict ratings that were given during short, in-person interactions where people are chatting, and dynamically moving their faces.”
As with any scientific study, the research has some limitations. While this research offers invaluable insights, the effects observed were relatively small. Real-life interactions are inherently complex, influenced by various factors beyond facial features. Additionally, the study focused on heterosexual interactions, leaving questions about how these findings might apply to different relationship dynamics.
“Given that we use facial structure information alone to calculate facial traits, it means we do not account for features such as eye, skin, hair colour, etc,” Zhao explained. “Our upcoming study involves using deep neural networks to extract information from participant images to determine whether the results in the current study replicate with information from an entire image.”
“Though our study finds that people have a preference for facial similarity, we do not know whether this preference translates to actual mate choice. So it would be worthwhile to investigate whether couples tend to have more similar faces.”
The study, “Objectively measured facial traits predict in-person evaluations of facial attractiveness and prosociality in speed-dating partners“, was authored by Amy A.Z. Zhao, Keagan Harrison, Alexander Holland, Henry M. Wainwright, Jo-Maree Ceccato, Morgan J. Sidari, Anthony J. Lee, and Brendan P. Zietsch.