Beauty in ‘eh?’ of beholder

Attractive people are easy on the eye while you're looking at them, but chances are you will be unlikely to remember them once you've looked away, according to new research.

"Attractive people profit from multiple advantages in social interactions due to their appealing looks … [they] are more successful in their professions and are helped more readily in dire situations," the authors write in a paper published in scientific journal Neuropsychologia.

But their study also shows that attractive people are less memorable than unattractive or striking people, who usually have more distinctive features.

Researchers from the University of Jena in Germany took 50 test subjects and showed them pictures of people's faces.

Half of the photos were of attractive people and the other half were of unattractive people. All of the photos were of people who were considered to have a similar level of distinctiveness.

"We could show that the test subjects were more likely to remember unattractive faces than attractive ones, when the latter didn’t have any particularly noticeable traits," says the university's Dr Holger Wiese, a psychologist.

"We find very symmetrical and rather average faces appealing," Wiese says.

Facial symmetry speaks to a healthy environment in the womb, which is indicative of a person's health in later life. From an evolutionary perspective, we subconsciously want the best genes and health for our offspring and this can be read in facial symmetry – a healthy person is a sexy person.

"Highly distinctive faces strongly deviate from an average or prototypical face as they, for instance, contain unusually sized or shaped facial feature, such as particularly small eyes, or unusual facial texture or colouration," the authors write.

In phase one, the test subjects were shown the photos for a few seconds each and asked to memorise them. In the second phase, they were asked when they recognised the photos.

"Until now, we assumed that it was generally easier to memorise faces which are being perceived as attractive – just because we prefer looking at beautiful faces," Wiese says.

But this was not the case.

Another interesting outcome of the study was that the test subjects were more likely to think that they had encountered an attractive photo when they hadn't, leading the scientists to detect considerably more false positives.

"We obviously tend to believe that we recognise a face just because we find it attractive," Wiese says.

Although being attractive is generally associated with facial symmetry and "prototypical" faces, however, stunningly beautiful people have distinctive faces. Angelina Jolie, who has been consistently voted one of the most beautiful women in the world, for example, does not have a prototypical face.

"On the one hand, we find very symmetrical and rather average faces appealing … [but] on the other hand, people who are perceived as being particularly attractive stand out by additional traits," Wiese says. "We tend to remember those faces well."

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Sarah Wild
Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didnt work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africas Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.

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