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The Powerful Influencing Effect of People's Faces on Your Behavior

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but what a face can do is apparently priceless. Princeton researchers discovered that people might make fast, subconscious decisions based solely on appearance at times when it was thought the decisions were based on more rational measures.

In this case, participants in the study were asked to choose which political candidate seemed most competent by looking only at their picture. The people were able to predict the outcome of nearly 72 percent of three U.S. Senate races based only on this visual information.

What makes a face attractive? Simply being "average" may do the trick.

"The findings are striking--I didn't believe them at first," said Alexander Todorov, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs. "I think that a lot of inferences that we make about other people are fairly automatic and can even occur outside of conscious awareness. The catch is that these inferences can influence important deliberate decisions."

From Birth on We Make Decisions Based on Appearance

One study found that, within the first 3 to 6 months of life, a baby established a preference for "attractive" people. They look at attractive faces longer than unattractive faces during this age span, then, when they reach 1 year, begin to show a more positive response to attractive people than unattractive people.

Further studies have shown that very young children make choices about who they'd like to play with based on facial attractiveness and body form. Evidence has even been found that physical attractiveness influences social acceptance among children in nursery school.

But kids are not the only ones with such views. In a study in which 400 teachers analyzed the same school records for two children (one attractive and one unattractive), the teachers gave higher ratings of education potential to the attractive children.

Is Beauty Really in the Eye of the Beholder?

A review of the literature on the effects of facial attractiveness from 1932 to 1999, published in the Psychological Bulletin, found that beauty is, in fact, NOT in the eye of the beholder. It was found that most people agree about who is or is not attractive (within and across ethnicities), and there may be universal standards by which attractiveness is judged.

Plus, that old saying 'don't judge a book by its cover' seems to go largely ignored. Adults and children considered attractive were judged more favorably and treated more positively than their unattractive counterparts, even by those who knew them.

Even moms are more affectionate to their infants if they're attractive.

Moms Even Judge Their Babies

Surprisingly, according to the Langlois Social Development Lab, mothers appear to be more affectionate toward and play more with their infants if they're attractive, compared to those who were less attractive.

Plus, mothers of less attractive infants rated them as more of a disruption to their lives than mothers of attractive infants. Although none of the mothers treated their infants badly, attractiveness did influence even maternal behavior.

What Makes a Face Attractive?

There are several theories out there as to what actually makes a face attractive. Some researchers believe that youthfulness, a smile or a symmetrical face all play a role. And, according to the Langlois Social Development Lab, a face must be "close to the population mean" to be considered attractive. In other words, it must be average.

Are We All That Superficial?

What does all this mean in the real world? Are we all just superficial beings wrapped up in judging one another on our looks? Not really. Many researchers suggest that these preferences are ingrained in us, and that we may prefer an attractive person in choosing a mate because we believe attractiveness on the outside may also be a sign of a healthy inside (and thus a more reliable mate).

Or, as in the case of the first study, the participants made subconscious decisions based on the photos--they probably would have a hard time describing why they felt one candidate looked more competent than the other, it was almost an instinctual decision.

Others believe in a theory known as the cognitive information processing theory. It says that the average of a category is preferred over other examples of the category. The Langlois Social Development Lab uses the example that an average-size dog is usually rated as a better example of the category of "dog" than is a Great Dane or a Mexican Chihuahua. Similarly, an average face may be rated as a better "more attractive" example of a human simply because it's more familiar or more "face-like" to more people.

Recommended Reading

How to Make All Your Relationships Work

"Study Drugs"--Use of These Dangerous New Drugs is Skyrocketing Among the A+ Student Crowd


Science June 10, 2005;308(5728):1623-6

Health Orbit June 9, 2005

Langlois Social Development Lab

How Physical Appearance Affects Personality

Advances in Experimental Social Psychology

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