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Why Face Symmetry Is Sexy Across Cultures And Species

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In humans, faces are an important source of social information. One property of faces that is rapidly noticed is attractiveness. Research has highlighted symmetry and sexual dimorphism (how masculine or feminine a face is) as important variables that determine a face’s attractiveness.

High and low symmetry composite faces for macaques, Hadza, and Europeans. All images are normalised on inter-pupillary distance to control relative image size, have been made perfectly symmetric, and each high/low pair possesses the average colour information of both. Perceptual differences are then dependent on shape differences between high and low symmetry faces that are independent of symmetry. (Credit: Image courtesy of Public Library of Science)

But why are these traits attractive?

One idea is that both traits are adverts of genetic quality or some other aspect of quality such as fertility. An alternative view is that preferences for these traits arise through visual experience and therefore not linked to any underlying biological factors. Faces certainly have the potential to be advertisements of mate ‘quality’ and one way to examine this idea is to look at interrelationships between proposed adverts of quality.

In a study Anthony Little of the University of Stirling and colleagues show that measurements of symmetry and sexual dimorphism from faces are related in humans, both in Europeans and African hunter-gatherers, and in a non-human primate. In all samples, symmetric males had more masculine facial proportions and symmetric females had more feminine facial proportions.

The findings therefore support the claim that sexual dimorphism and symmetry in faces are signals advertising quality by providing evidence that there must be a biological mechanism linking the two traits during development. For example, individuals resistant to disease may be able to grow both symmetric and sexually dimorphic. Such work also suggests that faces may advertise quality across different human populations and even across different primate species.

The researchers are currently collecting data on human perceptions of facial beauty at http://www.alittlelab.com, which also presents more information about their work.

PLoS ONE 3(5): e2106. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002106 [link]
Related to Sexual Dimorphism in Faces: Data Across Culture and Species.
Little AC, Jones BC, Waitt C, Tiddeman BP, Feinberg DR, et al. (2008) Symmetry Is
Abstract
Background

Many animals both display and assess multiple signals. Two prominently studied traits are symmetry and sexual dimorphism, which, for many animals, are proposed cues to heritable fitness benefits. These traits are associated with other potential benefits, such as fertility. In humans, the face has been extensively studied in terms of attractiveness. Faces have the potential to be advertisements of mate quality and both symmetry and sexual dimorphism have been linked to the attractiveness of human face shape.
Methodology/Principal Findings

Here we show that measurements of symmetry and sexual dimorphism from faces are related in humans, both in Europeans and African hunter-gatherers, and in a non-human primate. Using human judges, symmetry measurements were also related to perceived sexual dimorphism. In all samples, symmetric males had more masculine facial proportions and symmetric females had more feminine facial proportions.
Conclusions/Significance

Our findings support the claim that sexual dimorphism and symmetry in faces are signals advertising quality by providing evidence that there must be a biological mechanism linking the two traits during development. Such data also suggests that the signalling properties of faces are universal across human populations and are potentially phylogenetically old in primates.

Written by huehueteotl

May 9, 2008 at 7:35 am

Posted in Psychology

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