Good = Beautiful

by F.

Not too much of a surprise but interesting nonetheless. From a paper by Little, Burt, and Perrett, available here. According to the abstract,

the personality desired in a partner is reflected in face preference: if a trait is desired then faces perceived to possess that trait are found more attractive than faces which do not possess that trait. [emphasis added]

These findings cast new light on the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype. What an individual desires in a partner reflects what they consider “good”, and they find faces reflecting these desired traits as attractive – “what is good is beautiful”.

Possessing personality traits that are attractive may be causal in making a face attractive.

How did they test this?

Pairs of composite faces were made based on the faces that individuals differing in desired partner personality found most attractive.

One composite represented a face most attractive to those desiring a particular trait and the other a face most attractive to those not desiring the same trait.

Pairs were presented to different participants to ascertain whether the composites reflected the desired personality of the original raters. For several traits the composites did differ in perceived personality….


The really interesting question is which faces were associated with which traits—that is, what is an “honest” face, or a “dishonest” face, and so on, and are these universal or culture specific.

Like most stereotypes, this “good = beautiful, beautiful = good” thing is a little frightening—a little too much like phrenology: “Well, he has a large forehead, so he must have astute political judgment and a quick, sharp mind.”

It’s like when you read 19th century or early 20th century novelists and someone will make a judgment of personality based on someone’s “rheumy eyes” or “strong nose.” Conrad does this, though it may merely be a way to describe the character’s personality and looks at the same time—that is, “honest, broad brow” may mean “he’s honest + he has a strong brow.” But I’m not sure. There’s a scene in Heart of Darkness where Marlow is examined by a doctor before leaving for the Congo, and the doctor measures his skull—part of a study he’s doing, he tells Marlow—and it’s not clear (to me at least) whether Conrad is poking fun of the practice of phrenology or not:

“The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. ‘Good, good for there,’ he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine, with his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool. ‘I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,’ he said. ‘And when they come back, too?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I never see them,’ he remarked; ‘and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.’ He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. ‘So you are going out there. Famous. Interesting too.’ He gave me a searching glance, and made another note. ‘Ever any madness in your family?’ he asked, in a matter-of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. ‘Is that question in the interests of science too?’ ‘It would be,’ he said, without taking notice of my irritation, ‘interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot…”

Cite: Little, A.C., Burt, D.M., and Perrett, D.I. (2006). Personality and Individual Differences 41(6), 1107-1118.

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