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Beauty: that which is easy to understand

Sept. 28, 2006
Special to World Science  

Beau­ti­ful faces may be that way be­cause our brains pro­cess them eas­i­ly, which could in turn be be­cause they’re “pro­to­types” for our spe­cies, re­search­ers re­port in a stu­dy. These ideas, the sci­en­tists said, may ex­plain why peo­ple tend to pre­fer av­er­age faces, as pre­vi­ous stud­ies have found.

Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring by the 17th-century Dutch paint­er Jo­han­nes Ver­meer.


Av­er­a­ge­ness may sig­nal that a face is a pro­to­type—a stan­d­ard or typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of some­thing, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­t­ists, Pi­otr Win­kiel­man of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ca­l­i­for­nia, San Di­e­go, and col­leagues.

“A com­mon ex­pla­na­tion of this ef­fect pro­poses that pro­to­typ­i­cality sig­nals mate va­lue,” they wrote in the Sep­tem­ber is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­c­al Sci­ence. “Peo­ple tend to pre­fer high­ly pro­to­typ­i­cal sti­m­uli—a phe­nom­e­non re­ferred to as the beau­ty-in-av­er­age­ness ef­fect.”

The re­search­ers con­d­uc­ted ex­pe­r­i­ments in which vol­un­t­eers ca­t­e­go­rized and rat­ed the at­trac­tive­ness of groups of dots or ge­o­met­ric forms. These var­ied in “pro­to­typ­i­ca­li­ty.” 

For in­stance, some dots were ar­ranged so that they could be ea­s­i­ly con­nect­ed to form a square. Oth­ers were laid out so as to make a slight­ly off-kil­ter square. The same was done for dia­mond shapes.

“When pat­terns were close to their re­spec­tive pro­to­types, par­tic­i­pants cat­e­go­rized them more quick­ly and judged them as more at­trac­tive,” the re­search­ers wrote. “For ex­am­ple, a dis­tort­ed square might be judged un­at­trac­tive be­cause it is a ‘poor’ square,” lack­ing four equal sides. 

Prototyp­i­cality was re­lat­ed to both the ease with which view­ers cat­e­go­rized the im­ages, and at­trac­tive­ness, the re­search­ers found. More­o­ver, ease of classification de­ter­mined a pat­tern’s per­ceived at­trac­tive­ness.

Perhaps we like prototyp­i­cality be­cause there is “some bi­o­log­i­cal val­ue at­tributable” to it, the re­search­ers wrote, but this is unde­ter­mined. Al­so, prototyp­i­cality is just one fac­tor that in­flu­ences the ease of proc­essing some­thing, they added; oth­er fac­tors are sym­me­try, clar­i­ty and re­peat­ed ex­po­sure.


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Beautiful faces may be that way because our brains process them easily, which could in turn be because they’re “prototypes” for our species, researchers have found in a study. The scientists said that these ideas may explain why people tend to prefer average faces, as previous studies have revealed. Averageness may signal that the face is a prototype—a standard or typical example of something, according to the scientists, Piotr Winkielman of the University of California, San Diego, and colleagues. “A common explanation of this effect proposes that prototypicality signals mate value,” they wrote in the September issue of the research journal Psychological Science. “People tend to prefer highly prototypical stimuli—a phenomenon referred to as the beauty-in averageness effect.” The researchers conducted experiments in which volunteers categorized and rated the attractiveness of patterns of random dots or geometric forms. These varied in levels of “prototypicality.” For instance, some dots were arranged so that they could be easily connected to form a square. Others were laid out so as to make a slightly off-kilter square. The same was done for diamond shapes. “When patterns were close to their respective prototypes, participants categorized them more quickly and judged them as more attractive,” the researchers wrote. “For example, a distorted square might be judged unattractive because it is a ‘poor’ square,” lacking four equal sides. Prototypicality was related to both the ease with which viewers categorized the images, and attractiveness, the researchers found. Moreover, ease of classification determined a pattern’s perceived attractiveness. We may prototypicality because “there may simply be some biological value attributable” to it, the researchers wrote, but this is undetermined. Also, prototypicality is just one factor that influences the ease of processing something, they added; other factors are symmetry, clarity and repeated exposure.