Friday, 14 October 2011

What Can a Simple Physical Attractiveness Rating Exercise Tell Us?

Recently, as part of a larger study I'm doing with my professor on the effects of social status and desirability, I had to get a large sample of photographs (of both men and women between the ages of 19-24) pre-rated for attractiveness.

I found the following patterns:

1) Men showed more agreement in ratings when the female was highly attractive. That is, if a female was very pretty, the ratings would be high, and the standard deviation would be low.

2) Women showed more agreement in ratings when the male was very unattractive. That is, if a male looked ugly or weird, the ratings would be low, and the standard deviation would be low too.

3) Men generally showed more agreement in ratings overall (there was less variance in the ratings), while women generally showed less agreement in ratings overall (there was greater variance in the ratings).

I don't think these findings are groundbreaking, because there's bound to be research out there already formally documenting such results. But it was interesting to just deduce on my own the implications of these results.

Firstly, these show that men all know a good-looking female face when they see it. This indicates that physical attractiveness is an important marker of whether a woman is desirable or not and what constitutes physical attractiveness (in a face, at least) is quite universal (in the culture these male respondents come from, at least). Attractiveness ambiguity at the lower end of the spectrum suggests that men are still willing to give some women who might be less attractive benefit of the doubt. Men are thus more sensitive to the higher end of the female facial attractiveness spectrum.

Secondly, when a man is potentially attractive, not every woman may agree - each may have her own idea of what an attractive male looks like. This thus suggests that what makes a man desirable may not lie in his physical attractiveness; more information is needed about the man before most women are willing to be attracted to him, such as his status, character and background. Looking at a picture of a man therefore provides insufficient information for most women to make judgments about his desirability. But they tend to agree when a man looks unattractive. Women are thus more sensitive to the lower end of the male facial attractiveness spectrum.

Taken together, when we look at how come men look out for the higher end more while women are highly sensitive to the lower end more, it suggests that there are different payoffs in the mating strategies between males and females. For men, it is more costly to miss an opportunity to get to know a very attractive woman (what we might call a Type I error). On the other hand, for women, it is more costly to get attracted to a man who is potentially very undesirable (a Type II error).

Furthermore, the most attractive male will never be as highly rated as the most attractive female, while the most unattractive female will never be as poorly rated as the most unattractive male.

What does this imply for the society I live in at large, if we at least assume the ratings to reflect psychological dispositions and preferences of men and women in Singaporean culture?

For the men, it suggests that you're screwed if you're below the threshold of desirability, whatever that threshold depends on (looks, status, personality etc). Women will be sensitive towards these below-threshold men, so that they can be avoided.

For the women, it suggests in a rather morbid and cynical manner, that unless you're at the top (of what society defines as attractive), most guys won't be paying attention.

Why do these extrapolations seem to mirror what really is happening in society? Because our success at reproduction lies at the heart of our actions and behaviours. We wouldn't care about how high our mate value is, if it didn't matter. But the truth is it does (at least to some extent), because we are constantly rated by members of the opposite sex (and they also make use of how the members of our own sex rate us to make secondary judgments).

Because we care enough, we strive to better ourselves in those ways that eventually lead up to the kinds of patterns we see in society - men trying to peacock themselves up with material adornments, such as nice cars, suits and jobs (so they won't look down-and-out at the bottom of the ladder), and women trying to one-up each other on physical attractiveness, such as make up, clothing and even cosmetic surgery now in countries where such surgeries are readily available and social norms permit them (so they can be at the top).

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


I'm reading Sleights of Mind by neuroscientists Stephen L. Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde. It is a highly engaging and entertaining double-up between neuroscience and cognitive psychology (think brains, neurons, vision, perception, attention, memory, etc), and magic. Two topics that I have a fond loving for since I was a little kid.

Anyway, here's a nice excerpt on perspective paintings that are life-like (unfortunately nothing to do with magic, but all to do with illusion all the same):

"Artists have been utilizing visual illusions since the fifteenth century, when Renaissance painters invented techniques to trick your brain into thinking that a flat canvas is three-dimensional or that a series of brushstrokes in a still life is a bowl of luscious fruit."

"Trompe l'oeil is a French term that means 'trick the eye'. It flourished in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. The lifelike pictures appeared to jump from the frame.

An early and perhaps apocryphal example of trompe l'oeil, reported by Pliny the Elder, is the legendary competition between two renowned painters in ancient Greece, Zeuxis and Parrhasios. Each artist brought a covered painting to the contest. When Zeuxis unveiled his work, his painted grapes were so realistic that birds flew from the sky to peck at them. Convinced of his victory, Zeuxis tried to uncover Parrhasios's painting to confirm the superiority of his work. He was defeated, however, because the curtain he tried to pull back was Parrhasios's painting itself."
After getting out of the train at Bras Basah MRT, I hopped into the passenger lift which would bring me up four storeys to the main gantry exit area. That was when I realised I was the only guy in there, with about 7 or 8 females. So, I just thought, it'd be a pretty nice time for the lift to endure a breakdown there and then. And I pictured myself saying, "ah, sorry to inform you of this, but I have a very contagious virus on me." What happens next is up to the imagination; perhaps throwing out "just kidding" and garnering relieved sighs and maybe some smacks for kino haha.

Then the lift door opened and off to work I was, as everybody mundanely shuffled out.