What does she see in you?

PENN STATE (US)—Guys should just face it. Women want it all, according to new research that suggests women rate attractiveness based on both individual facial features and overall facial aesthetics.

“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,” says Robert Franklin, graduate student in psychology at Penn State.

“At the most basic sexual level, attractiveness represents a quality that should increase reproductive potential, like fertility or health”, he explains.

On the nonsexual side, attractiveness is perceived on the whole, but brains judge beauty based on the sum of the parts they see, says Franklin. “But up until now, this (dual-process) concept had not been tested.”

To study how women use these methods of determining facial attractiveness, Franklin and Reginald Adams, assistant professor of psychology and neurology, showed 50 heterosexual female college students a variety of male and female faces and asked them 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 the next phase of the study.

The psychologists then presented the same faces to another set of 50 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.

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, particularly when they saw faces as potential dates, rather than lab partners. The study proved the theory correct.

“The whole face ratings of the second group correlated better with the nonsexual ‘lab partner’ ratings of the first group.” Franklin says. When the faces were intact, participants were able to 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 adds. “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 researchers say that by splitting the faces in half, women relied 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 admits.

“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.

But how hormones interact and are channeled through the conscious brain and the human culture that shapes it is a mystery.

“It is a complicated picture,” Franklin adds. “We are trying to find what features in the brain are at play, here.”

The findings are published in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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