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Male Facial Attractiveness As Seen By Women

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When it comes to potential mates, women may be as complicated as men claim they are, according to psychologists.

“We have found that women evaluate facial attractiveness on two levels — a sexual level, based on specific facial features like the jawbone, cheekbone and lips, and a nonsexual level based on overall aesthetics,” said Robert G. Franklin, graduate student in psychology working with Reginald Adams, assistant professor of psychology and neurology, Penn State. “At the most basic sexual level, attractiveness represents a quality that should increase reproductive potential, like fertility or health.”

On the nonsexual side, attractiveness can be perceived on the whole, where brains judge beauty based on the sum of the parts they see.

“But up until now, this (dual-process) concept had not been tested,” Franklin explained. The researchers report the findings of their tests in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

To study how women use these methods of determining facial attractiveness, the psychologists showed fifty heterosexual female college students a variety of male and female faces. They asked the participants to rate what they saw as both hypothetical dates and hypothetical lab partners on a scale of one to seven. The first question was designed to invoke a sexual basis of determining attractiveness, while the second was geared to an aesthetic one. This part of the experiment served as a baseline for next phase.

The psychologists then presented the same faces to another set of fifty heterosexual female students. Some of these faces, however, were split horizontally, with the upper and lower halves shifted in opposite directions. The scientists asked these participants to rate the overall attractiveness of the split and whole faces on the same scale.

Split face photo used in evaluation of how women determine facial attractiveness by Robert G. Franklin, graduate student in psychology and Reginald Adams, assistant professor of psychology and neurology, Penn State. (Credit: Robert G. Franklin, Penn State)

By dividing the faces in half and disrupting the test subjects’ total facial processing, the researchers believed that women would rely more on specific facial features to determine attractiveness. They thought that this sexual route would come into play particularly when the participants saw faces that were suited as hypothetical dates rather than lab partners. The study showed exactly that.

“The whole face ratings of the second group correlated better with the nonsexual ‘lab partner’ ratings of the first group.” Franklin said. With the faces intact, the participants could evaluate them on an overall, nonsexual level.

“The split face ratings of the second group also correlated with the nonsexual ratings of the first group when the participants were looking at female faces,” he added. “The only change occurred when we showed the second group split, male faces. These ratings correlated better with the ‘hypothetical date’ ratings of the first group.”

The bottom line is that, at a statistically significant level, splitting the faces in half made the women rely on a purely sexual strategy of processing male faces. The study verifies that these two ways of assessing facial appeal exist and can be separated for women.

“We do not know whether attractiveness is a cultural effect or just how our brains process this information,” Franklin admitted. “In the future, we plan to study how cultural differences in our participants play a role in how they rate these faces. We also want to see how hormonal changes women experience at different stages in the menstrual cycle affect how they evaluate attractiveness on these two levels.”

Researchers have long known that women’s biological routes of sexual attraction derive from an instinctive reproductive desire, relying on estrogen and related hormones to regulate them. The overall aesthetic approach is a less reward-based function, driven by progesterone.

How this complex network of hormones interacts and is channeled through the conscious brain and the human culture that shapes it is a mystery.

“It is a complicated picture,” Franklin added. “We are trying to find what features in the brain are at play, here.”
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 45, Issue 5, September 2009 Pages 1156-1159
A dual-process account of female facial attractiveness preferences: Sexual and nonsexual routes
Robert G. Franklin Jr., Reginald B. Adams Jr.
Abstract The current study conceptualizes facial attractiveness as a dual-process judgment, combining sexual and aesthetic value. We hypothesized that holistic face processing is more integral to perceiving aesthetic preference and feature-based processing is more integral to sexual preference. In order to manipulate holistic versus feature-based processing, we used a variation of the composite face paradigm. Previous work indicates that slightly shifting the top from the bottom half of a face disrupts holistic processing and enhances feature-based processing. In the present study, while nonsexual judgments best explained facial attraction in whole-face images, a reversal occurred for split-face images such that sexual judgments best explained facial attraction, but only for mate-relevant faces (i.e., other-sex). These findings indicate that disrupting holistic processing can decouple sexual from nonsexual judgments of facial attraction, thereby establishing the presence of a dual-process.

Written by huehueteotl

August 26, 2009 at 7:42 am

Posted in Psychology

6 Responses

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  1. As a girl I think they found the exact result.Aesthetic is a matter & sexual attraction another.A girl can discribe a guy as “sexy” while he is fairly ugly and vice versa.Such as the first sentence of the text despite what they were judged before, women are as complicated as men in choosing mates,if they are nt more.


    September 17, 2010 at 11:08 am

    • Exactly! my theory confirms it. Sex appeal is highly subjective. It is not the same thing as beauty. Although, men seem to agree more on judgements of facial attractiveness.

      Take for instance the riddle from my website:

      Try to find at least one celebrity couple in which the man has very effeminate facial features and the woman has a very feminine face. Note that you can pick any man with little facial masculinity. He can be a rich, famous, tall and handsome actor.

      Not even the most handsome actors (with barely masculine faces) are found attractive by women with very feminine faces. This sole fact proves that attraction is highly subjective in case of women.

      Read more at:

      Joseph Danrock

      July 21, 2011 at 9:08 pm

  2. What encourages women to become obsessed with beauty? Is there anything that can be done to prevent this?…

    Actually, recent studies have shown this not to be a societal predisposition, but a hardwired neurological function possibly related to finding the best potential mating partner. This doesn’t seem to be limited at all to just males to females, with fe…


    March 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm

  3. The most important feature when it comes to “sexiness” on an instinctual level is jaw protrusion i.e. how long one’s jaw is (think Clooney). This determines testosterone level and is a sexual trait that is obviously viewed as masculine. It ALSO is a mark of how potentially promiscuous one can be due to the sex drive from the same hormones. Think “Cads vs Dads”.


    March 20, 2011 at 5:00 am

  4. (correction. Testosterone level influences how long one’s jaw is)


    March 20, 2011 at 5:02 am

  5. Nicely written article!

    The problem with such studies is that the raters have VERY limited choices compared with the abundance of facial features that may be found in real life: “a variety of male and female faces” – quote from the article.

    How many? 10? maybe 20? even a 100? How many is that compared to the variety of faces that can be found in real life. One night out downtown, and the woman observes thousands of faces.

    The amount of participants: fifty. It also matters if you appreciate that their own facial features may have an impact on their choices. Fifty is not a representative sample.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not implying this study was bias. I am simply saying that the results do NOT reflect real life preferences when it comes to facial attractiveness.

    I don ’t blame the scientists – after all how can anyone conduct such experiment with hundreds of thousands of participants and rated faces?

    Therefore, I prefer to rely on negative evidence. Meaning – I examine the entire population! It is possible nowadays in the are of internet and gossip magazines following every second of the private lives of celebrities. Then, I find certain mating behavior that never takes place. Although, there are no rational reasons that would impede it. And I ask myself: why?

    I claim there is not even one celebrity couple in the whole world with facial features as defined in The No Such Couple Paradox. Although in accordance with the predominant theories there are no rational reasons that would impede the formation of such couple.


    Joseph Danrock

    July 21, 2011 at 9:04 pm

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