Beauty and health are tightly linked. The closer a face is to the symmetrical proportions of Gwyneth Paltrow or Zac Efron, and to the average face in a population, the more it advertises developmental stability, meaning that pathogens or genetic mutations have not adversely affected its owner.
Good looks also confer a well-documented “halo effect”: a beautiful man or woman is consistently evaluated in a positive light. Good-looking people are assumed to be smarter than their homelier peers, although there is no correlation between intelligence and appearance above a median level of attractiveness.
Appearance interacts with personality in complicated ways—good-looking people are consistently rated higher on positive traits. When volunteers were asked to evaluate faces in a UK study, the most attractive individuals received the highest ratings for extraversion and agreeableness. Yet more than the halo effect is at work, because the owners of those good-looking faces also rated themselves to be higher on these traits. More impressively, when judges looked at digital composites (averages of faces) made from people who scored at the extremes for extraversion and agreeableness (and, for women, openness), they gave those faces the highest attractiveness ratings. The judges didn’t know that the composites were made from the faces of exceptionally outgoing and easygoing people. They just thought those faces were better-looking than average. (For men only, facial composites generated from the most conscientious and emotionally stable subjects were also rated as more attractive than those made from subjects with the lowest scores for these attributes.) Clearly, the stereotype”what is beautiful is good” contains at least a kernel of truth.
Here, then, is the big chicken-or-egg puzzle that runs throughout face perception research. Do the biological blessings behind good looks give rise to a sparkling personality; or do attractive people exhibit the socially desirable traits of extraversion and agreeableness because society treats swans better than ugly ducklings? Or do individuals with attractive personalities develop more attractive faces over time? Whether nature or nurture, the relationship between beauty and “positive” personality traits is real—and readily discernible.
We make numerous assumptions about people with high-hormone profiles that conform to gender norms: First, that they’re hot. In a lineup, the high-estrogen Jessica Alba and Beyoncé types receive the highest attractiveness ratings by both genders. Their pretty faces predictably get top ratings for social dominance (high status). As for men, high-testosterone faces are especially desired by women who are ovulating, although women may have a default preference for men with a mix of masculine and feminine features; dominant and cooperative. Think Brad Pitt’s manly jawline and sensuous lips.
At the University of St. Andrews, volunteers of both genders could tell, with above-chance accuracy, whether people were promiscuous just by looking at photos of their faces. Among women, high-estrogen feminine faces were accurately rated as the most promiscuous—and the most beautiful. Among men, the Lothario face (a composite of the most promiscuous males) had high-testosterone features: slightly smaller eyes, larger noses, and broader cheekbones. Women accurately judged this face as belonging to a playboy and downgraded it in favor of men who looked—and actually were—more committed and monogamous.
Do highly feminine-looking women and masculine-looking men have hormone profiles that give rise to stronger sex drives, or do their looks simply lead to more sexual opportunities? The likely answer is both: natureand nurture are inseparable. And yet, there’s a clear message. The next time you’re perusing photos on an online dating site and get a suspicious feeling about a person’s romantic trustworthiness, you might listen to that instinct.
Curious about gaydar’s reliability, Ambady and Rule devised experiments in which they asked volunteers to take a look at close-cropped head shots and guess whether each face belonged to someone who is gay, lesbian, or straight. Impressively, most people could identify sexual orientation in just a split-second thin-slice. “People can even identify orientation by mouth and eyes alone,” says Rule.
The more motivated you are to know someone’s orientation, the better your intuition. People with the sharpest gaydar are gay men and lesbians, naturally, and ovulating women. Subjects identify lesbians accurately between 64 and 70 percent of the time; gay men are correctly identified with slightly less reliability, in the 60 to 65 percent range. “The more we ask people to think about their choices before they make them, the worse they are,” says Rule. “When they don’t go with their gut, they fail.”
It’s easy to conclude that the ability to detect sexual orientation depends on biological cues alone —the gay man with doe eyes or delicate cheekbones, the lesbian with a strong jawline. While there’s a kernel of truth here, it doesn’t yield anything like a full crop. Metrosexuals trigger false alarms; lesbian femmes and gay Marlboro men often ride under the gaydar.
What’s especially interesting is when gaydar goes off in the absence of gender-atypical cues. It’s just a feeling, like those that fueled rumors about actor Neil Patrick Harris (before he came out). Observers may be picking up on cues that have more to do with “nurture” (experience) than “nature” (biology). Rule has a theory that gay-related expressions may create “repetitive patterns of musculature that result in a certain look.” Stereotypically, gay men are more emotionally expressive than straight guys, adopting more female-typical facial movements, and some lesbians may express themselves more like straight men. It’s the “Dorian Gray Effect”: Appearance reflects behavior in telltale ways, just as Gray’s portrait did in Oscar Wilde’s novel.
The Dorian Gray Effect also explains why we can single out people who are chronically cantankerous or ever-exuberant: Stress and laugh lines linger even when the face is still. It also solves the mystery of why old married couples grow to look like each other; for decades, they’ve been mirroring each other’s facial expressions.