The effects of attractiveness on facial recognition for both genders




effects of attractiveness on facial recognition for both genders


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Sydney University



The purpose of the study was to determine whether the
independent variable (faces of various attractiveness) had an effect on an
individual’s facial recognition. 24 (16 females 8 males with a mean age of 22)
undergraduate students from Western Sydney University participated in the
experiment where they were initially presented with a number of faces from the
Radboud Faces Database and given a short amount of time to remember them. After
40 minutes they were presented with another set of faces (some they had just
seen, some they haven’t) and were asked to identify if these faces were ‘old’
or ‘new’ they were also asked to rate the attractiveness of the same faces. One
participants was removed as they provided erroneous data. Results did not
support the hypothesis, more attractive faces were better recognised than
average or unattractive faces.


effects of attractiveness on facial recognition for both genders

Human beings learn to recognise thousands of faces
that they come into contact throughout their lifetime. The ability to recognise
faces that we are familiar with proves to be a prominent factor in our daily
social interactions and has generated bodies of research and debate over the
recent years. Having this skill is important as the human face contains a vast amount
of information about the individual ranging from, emotions, origin, health
qualities and social information. Facial recognition is complex as it involves multiple
areas in our brain. This report’s goal is to highlight the importance of
attractiveness and its role it plays in facial recognition.

Attractiveness can be determined by the symmetrical
qualities of one’s face (Mealy, Bridgstock and Townsend 1999) and is generally
been referred to an advantageous trait to have as it helps maximise an
individual’s chances of finding a partner (Pflüger, Oberzaucher, Katina,
Holzleitner, & Grammer 2012). However it is not the sole characteristic
that determines a suitable mate, other phenotype qualities such as health, age,
status and intelligence are taken into account before making a choice (Maner,
Gailliot, Rouby, Miller 2007)). Limbrecht, Rukavina, Scheck, Walter, Hoffmann,
& Traue). Maner, Gailliot, Rouby, and Miller (2012) stated that
attractiveness increases an individual’s likelihood for reproduction by calling
upon cognitive processes such as attention and memory. This means that those
who are deemed as ‘attractive’ have an advantage in acquiring a partner and
eventually producing offspring compared to others who aren’t as attractive. This
suggests individuals who are easily remembered may be given higher priority or
importance which will affect their behaviour accordingly.

Recognition is defined by the process of being
recognized (Sergiu and Zoica 2014). In
order to examine the depths of our facial recognition, MacLin
and MacLin (2004) conducted an experiment where judges were tasked with
recognising mug shots provided from the local police department.  Results show that if the person’s mugshot had
a high amount of stereotypical criminal characteristics, the judges tended to
recognise them easier. Another experiment by Wright and Stroud (2002) involved
witnesses identify criminals in a line up. They found that an individual has a
higher chance of accurately identifying the culprit if they were closer in age
which supports the own age bias. An additional bias we can examine would be the
own race bias, which involves the studies of Walker and Hewstone (2008) where
they identified that a person of a particular race will recognise the face of another
person of the same race compared to someone from a different background.
Researchers should consider the age and race bias when conducting experiments
revolving around facial recognition as results may be confounded.

The studies of Olson and Marshuetz (2005) stated that
beauty could be perceived within a very short exposure. It aimed at identifying
certain qualities that were deemed to be attractive; facial symmetry, femininity
and masculinity features. It is true that attractive people tend to enjoy more
benefits in life stemming from favouritism. Studies from Aguirre ‘s study,
Singh & D’ Esposito (1999) involving magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) show
that there is a lack of stimulation in the insular, dorsal posterior parietal,
inferior dorsolateral and medial prefrontal which are areas of the brain that
activate in the presence of attractive facial parameters when viewing
unattractive photos. This suggests that certain parts of our brain don’t
‘switch on’ when we view others we don’t seem as attractive.

With the literature above taken into consideration, the
experiment was designed in order to investigate whether the independent
variable (faces of varying attractiveness) and an effect on the 24
participants’ dependent variable (accuracy of their facial recognition). It was
hypothesized that faces which were deemed more attractive would be easily
recognised and remembered compared to those rated average and unattractive
regardless of gender.




total of 24 undergraduate students (16 female; 8 male; M age = 22.32) from Western Sydney University participated in a
study of involving the recognition of male and female faces that differed in
attractiveness. One participant was excluded as they provided erroneous data.

and Apparatus

total of 48 Caucasian faces were used from the ‘Radboud Faces Database’ and the
‘Chicago Face Database’. Faces within this database had previously been rated
for subjective attractiveness. The 24 (12 male/12 female) most and least
attractive faces within this set were used in the current study. The 24 faces
were organised into face categories (attractive male, attractive female,
unattractive male, unattractive female) and divided equally into each block of

images were cropped with an oval mask in order to hide distinguishing features
while retaining face shape information. Faces were shown with different facial
expressions at study and test to avoid simple image matching.


experiment formed part of a research project approved by the Western Sydney
University Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC Approval Number: H12418).
Informed written consent and demographic information was obtained from all
participants who completed the entire study. 
Participants were tested in a group-testing lab and instructions for the
task were provided both verbally and on screen. The experiment was completed
using Open Sesame software (version 3.1).

the course of two weeks participants completed two old/new long term memory
recognition tasks, one with upright faces and one with inverted faces (control
condition). During each learning phase 12 faces were displayed on screen. Each
face was presented for 5000ms, with an inter-stimulus interval of 1000ms.
Participants were instructed to passively observe and memorise the faces
presented during the learning phase, as they would be tested on these later.
There was a 40-minute distractor phase between study and tests where students
were presented with tutorial material.

test, participants were shown 24 faces, half of which were ‘old’ (had been seen
previously) and half of which were ‘new’ (were not present at study).
Participants were asked to respond by pressing ‘z’ on a keyboard if they
thought the face was old and ‘m’ if they thought the face was new. Participants
were also asked to rate the confidence of each identity judgement on a scale of
1 (Very Unsure) to 5 (Very Confident). At the completion of the study students
rated all of the faces for attractiveness so that they could be matched against
previous ratings in future research.



There was no main effect
of attractiveness, F(1, 22) = 2.81 , p =.108, partial ?² = .11. Overall the
proportion of correct responses was no different for attractive (M = 0.72, SD = 0.17) or unattractive faces (M = 0.79, SD = 0.13).

Paired samples t-tests
were carried out to establish whether there was a difference in recognition
memory accuracy for male and female faces when they differed in perceived
attractiveness. For recognition memory there was a significant difference in
the proportion of correct responses for attractive and unattractive male faces,
t(22) = 2.39, p = .026, with unattractive male faces (M = 0.81, SD = 0.17)
being recognised more accurately than attractive male face (M = 0.69, SD = 0.22; see Figure 1). There was no difference in the proportion
of correct responses for attractive (M
= 0.76, SD = 0.19) and unattractive (M = 0.76, SD = 0.19) female faces.













Figure 1. Proportion of Correct Responses for
attractive and unattractive male and female faces


The hypothesis that stated that attractive faces would
be better recognised than average and unattractive faces was not supported in
this experiment. This study examined the relationship between facial
recognition and attractiveness.  From the
results gathered, there was no evidence supporting the hypothesis and in fact
showed that there was no main effect of attractiveness on facial recognition. The
mean proportion of correct responses for attractive faces was 0.72 with a
standard deviation of 0.17 and for unattractive faces it was 0.79 and 0.13
respectively. This effect was shown for both male and female participants and
suggested that they may be other factors than just attractiveness when it comes
to facial recognition.  

Ultimately the report shows that attractiveness does
not play a major role in facial recognition and suggest other factors need to
be taken into consideration. A study conducted by Wickham and Morris (2005)
deduced that attractiveness alone was not sufficient to recognise an
individual’s face. Distinctiveness was shown to be a constant and reliable
predictor for example, scars, moles and eye colour. The results from Wickham
and Morris add more weight to the argument that attractiveness does not have an
effect on facial recognition and that there are other qualities that do. Their
work further suggests that how the participants rated the subjects in terms of
their attractiveness may have been skewed by the natural distribution of attractiveness
in nature which is best described by a normal bell curve where the most common
levels of attractiveness are at the centre and the higher attractive and
unattractive faces are on either side of the curve. This would in fact makes
certain faces distinctive to certain participants. 

Although the experiment was successful there is always
room for improvement. It should be noted that there was an uneven gender spread
amongst the participants (16 Females & 8 Males), their mean age being 22.
This group of participants that took part in the experiment may not have been
the best representation for the general population of Australia as they were
also all students of Western Sydney University which meant they all shared
similar educational backgrounds. In addition the subjects presented were all
Caucasian which may produce confounding results based on the own race bias (Walker
and Hewstone 2008) and may have skewed some ratings in attractiveness. Some improvements
that can be included in future experiments are, having a larger group of
participants which better represented the general population of Australia with
a better demographic spread involving age, gender, educational background and
country of origin.

In conclusion the results suggest that although people
may think that they would recognise attractive faces more easily compared
unattractive faces, we actually remember them equally well. While being more or
less attractive has some social implications and people do generally agree on
who is and who is not attractive, attractiveness is not a simple social
construct, it is ingrained into our DNA and we may not remember certain faces,
attractive or unattractive once a certain amount of time has passed.


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