What women want: gauging facial attractiveness in men

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When considering possible partners, women process facial attractiveness on two levels, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The researchers found that, when admiring potential mates’ facial features, there are two types of assessment at work—that of overall aesthetic appeal, and that of sexual attractiveness. Further, they showed that aesthetic appeal was a reflection of a woman’s perception of the entire face, while sexual attraction was more influenced by specific facial features.

To demonstrate this, the team of psychologists from Penn State recruited 100 heterosexual female college students—half of whom were shown photos of both male and female faces and asked to consider their appeal in either a nonsexual scenario (a potential lab partner), or a sexual one, (a possible date). In the next phase of the study, the other 50 female students weren’t given any social scenarios, but merely asked to assess photographs. They too were shown images of faces, but half of the photos were shown whole, and half had been altered—by showing the top and bottom hemispheres of the face disconnected from each other—to direct the participants attention to particular features, instead of the faces as a whole.

Despite the fact that they were looking at the exact same faces in both the split and whole images, when the second group was shown whole faces, they tended to rank the attractiveness similarly to how participants in the first group had sized up potential lab partners, that is, in a nonsexual way. They did the same for the split photographs of women’s faces. Yet, when, instead, they were looking at split photos of male faces—and therefore focusing more on individual features—their assessments of attractiveness tended to fall more in line with the first group’s perception of possible dates.

The reason for the discrepancy in perceived attractiveness, despite looking at the exact same faces, has to do with the way women process facial appeal, the researchers say. At the same time, women are generally both looking for sexual attractiveness and overall aesthetics in potential partners’ faces, but, as the ability to separate these assessments with the split photographs showed, there are actually two separate processes taking place. The next step in the research, then, is to understand how cultural or hormonal changes could possibly influence attraction. Beyond that the researchers also hope to better understand why, evolutionarily speaking, women make these dual assessments—that are at once complementary and unique.</p