Perception of Beauty: Top-down or Bottom-up processing?

Dear writer,
As researchers, we have searched and gathered an array of sources that we believe, will be useful for writing a paper in regards to the perception of beauty and what type of processing it could be. We introduce this topic with essential background information such as culture and history of beauty as well as a multiple perspectives and definitions of beauty. We present a multitude of articles that demonstrate a range, in a psychological manner of course, of the perception and processing of beauty and empirical studies to support them. We thank you for giving us an opportunity to assist you with your writings.
Best of luck,
S.,T. & N.

What is Beauty?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; in the eye of the beheld. There is much controversy with regards to the way human beings perceive beauty. Beauty is both a tangible object and very subjective and merely based on personal preference. Beauty can be found in the external representations of each individual, in a society or in art of various forms. Beauty can be found in moments; still or alive, landscapes, and works of art by word or delivered by sound. It is a name we give to this concept that gives us a pleasurable feeling and gratifies our aesthetic needs.

Human beings have the gift of perception and to recognize emotionally competent stimuli and make sense of them. Our sensory organs provide our brains with signals which are then manipulated and understood within us. Looking at beauty there are many ways to interpret this complex entity. The way in which we decipher something or someone beautiful or not is based on the extent to which something gratifies our beliefs, experiences, expectations and sometimes to even express the feeling or experience.

The following sources takes a looks at many aspects; cultural, historical, and social that effect the nature and meaning of beauty. The sources followed shed light on a scientific view, give empirical data providing for either side of the question.

Relevant Terminology

Perception: neurophysiological act, product or process by which becomes aware of something through senses and interprets the external stimuli. (Oxford Online Dictionary)[1]
Top-down Processing (Indirect): "use of contextual information in pattern recognition."[2]
Bottom-up Processing (Direct): "begins with the stimulus itself then is carried out from the retina to the visual cortex, with each successive stage in visual pathway carrying out ever more complex analysis of the input."[2]

Top-Down or Bottom-Up Processing (Direct & Indirect Perception)

Source 1: Michaels, C. F., & Carello, C. (1981). Direct Perception. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

This book lends well to the comprehension of the Direct Perception (Top-down) theory, proposed by J. J. Gibson in 1960. In order to answer the question posed it is important to understand the theory and how it relates to our perception of beauty. Professors Michaels and Carello go into detail about the theory as well as provide examples of how it is applicable to situations and various complex systems within our world. Briefly explained, the Direct Theory of Perception emphasizes on man’s ability to simply detect information in our environment. Gibson proposes that stimuli in our environment is “as is” and that no further understanding is needed; the object determines perception. The book refers to the theory stating that perception is innate rather than something inferred. Many of the examples herein suggest that perception happens when the retina receives clear and detailed arrays of light. The source provides many examples of ways this theory functions simplistically. It is useful for research during the beginning stages of research as it will help you be able to answer the question without bias.

Source 2: Rock, I. (1997). Indirect Perception. Cambridge, Mass.: A Bradford Book.

It is necessary now, to examine the competing theory. Indirect Perception (Bottom-up) proposed by Gesault and colleagues emphasizes on the influence of past experiences. Receiving an image the retina receives the stimulus which in turn triggers a higher order process of comprehension that involves a hierarchy of inferences being made by your various sensory receivers. This book takes into account work conducted by Gibson, as well as Helmholtz. It compares the theories themselves as well as gives examples of each by looking at various studies. The book includes that perception is individual and results from the assumptions that explain blurry images. Though the novel does not directly speak of beauty, the work highlighted in the sources allows for interpretation of the theories and direct application to how we view beauty as a concept and as a disposable object.

Historical and Cultural Views of Beauty


There is proof that standards of beauty and attractiveness are similar across different genders and cultures.[3]Historically we can see through artworks and paintings that what was considered beautiful then, is not definitely not today. If we take a look at one of the most famous paintings on the right by Botticelli (The Birth of Venus), we see the lady in the middle is not the standard we may be used to today, of skinny, tall and perfect models.


Art History and Beauty

Source 3: Marwick, A. (1988). Beauty in History. Hucclecote: Thames and Hudson.

This text lends well to the top-down perception of beauty given that it is filled and based on cultural and historical shifts in the ideals of beauty over time. The author gives many examples of images over the centuries that show the shift in preference in art, women and fashion through the decades. Each shift representing a socio-economic advancement. This book sheds light on the importance of economic stability, technology available at the time, gender roles and sexual drives. The author makes reference to the work of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution and heavy emphasis on sexual preferences. Artists such as Van Gogh and Leornardo da Vinci have their work critiqued in their externalization of beautiful landscapes and women. One specific piece by Peter Paul Rubens in 1639, The Judgment of Paris, emphasizes that beauty “is the true perfection of the human body” (53). The figures displayed then are not the same as the figures preferred now. This difference is crucial to our perception of beauty and this source directly relates beauty to the top-down theory as we infer what is beautiful to us and to the time to the information received visually. This source is useful to you as it provides historical and cultural references to beauty. The use of source 1 and 2 will allow you to infer and apply those theories to the examples provided in this source.

Cross-Cultural Aspects of Beauty

Source 4: Olarte, S. W. (2010). Cross-cultural aspects of beauty. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis & Dynamic Psychiatry,38(2), 199-202.

This article takes a look at how our environment, in a societal, cultural and interpersonal way, is ever-changing, which makes the idea of beauty just as evolving and hard to determine. Olarte states that human beings can acknowledge attractiveness at a very young age and that it whether it be that it is something learned or something innate, that perception of attractiveness is continuously going to be altered due to the morphing nature of one's life and all it's influences. What is fascinating about this article is that they look at the aftermath of these influences and see how this affects the sense of self worth.

Significance of Darwin's Theory of Evolution in Beauty

Source 5: Dutton, D. (Director) (2010, February 25). A Darwinian Theory of Evolution. Ted Talks. Lecture conducted from Ted Talks.

This lecture conducted by Denis Dutton, philosopher and scholar on aesthetics, summarizes the Darwinian theory of Beauty. Charles Darwin states his theory of evolution in light of survival of the fittest. This source offers a scientific approach and animalistic interpretation of beauty. Denis states that Darwin was able to conclude that beauty was found in those that emitted “fitness signals”. Many of Darwin’s writings revolve around sexual attraction and signs of health and strength. Man’s ability to exert magnetism makes us beautiful. An example of sexual selection through the ideals of beauty is the hand axe. Homo Erectus produced the hand axe, used to hunt but also to be adored, fifty to one thousand years before language was invented. This implies that the ideas of beauty are innate within us and that we equate beauty with a natural ability to express masterful craftsman ship. This source lends more towards the bottoms-up theory of perception of beauty as it lends to the innate attraction to symmetry as seen in the hand axe and many other pre-historic expressions of class and strength. This source provides a leeway and also examples that relate to the bottom-up perception of beauty. The information provided by the object was enough to lead someone to believe that the object was beautiful without inference. Workmanship and attention to detail such as symmetry meant intelligence, sexual appeal, skill and technique which in turn made you a candidate to reproduction which was what makes you beautiful.

Society and Beauty Standards

Today, it seems that most of us are all in tune with the latest trends, what's in and what's new. We spend countless hours and a significant amount of money on beauty regimens, like make up or hair, clothing and weight loss products or routines. Historically and evolutionarily, beauty was a prevalent factor in humans but it seems it is being more and more distorted and unrealistic, creating negative impacts on people today, especially to youth.

The video below focuses on the "selfie" fad and how social media is a cruel and judgemental place and puts pressure on young women in order to look perfect and fit the norm of the current definition of beauty.

How the Definition of Beauty has Changed [4]

More Slender, More Sexy

If you compare pictures of women in magazines and in museums, you'd notice a big difference. Many of the women were plump and more voluptuous than those women in ads in posters. The indication of having some meat to your bones meant that you were wealthy enough to eat which also signified power and beauty because people wanted to attain that high social class "look". As time went on, there was a period where women who were curvier were thought to be more attractive but being thin became the new norm and something to strive for.[4]

Makeup to Cover up

In history, makeup was used by the Egyptians, Greek and Romans but soon after became a taboo. In the 1800's, wearing red lipstick indicated that you were a prostitute, which was illegal then. But makeup was brought back in film by Max Factor to make sure his actors and actresses looked perfect on screen and he then marketed it to public consumers which led to a billion dollar industry.[4]

Fair to Tan

For as long as we can remember, fairness or whiteness of the skin was considered the ideal in attractiveness. People believe that the increase in diversity and racial integration has led to people slowly changing their standards. [4]

Smell of Beauty

Beauty can be referred to as something physical but scents play a role in what is considered attractive. Cleanliness has been compared to the divine and became an important regime for beauty, unlike before it was believed that you could contract diseases from bathing. Now we use deodorants, perfumes and cologne to mask our natural odour for a more flowery or spicy one.[4]

In this video, created by Dove, it shown how people see themselves, very negatively and how they are enlightened to see how other people look at them. People focus too much on the negative aspects, which are not entirely negative at all, but is not perfect in the standards of todays distorted view of beauty. The constant portrayal of perfect carved and altered women in media is affecting society negatively and warping their views of themselves. Dove's campaigns includes the idea of embracing natural beauty and appreciating the uniqueness you have been blessed with.

"You Are Beautiful" Project

OWN TV. (2013, February 21). You Are Beautiful: The Little Sticker That Started a Worldwide Phenomenon - Super Soul Sunday - OWN [Video file]. Retrieved from

Source 6: OWN. (2013). The 'You Are Beautiful' Project: Artist Matthew Hoffman Spreads The Love (VIDEO). Retrieved from

In 2003, a 23 year old Chicago resident named Matthew Hoffman started a worldwide movement using the words “You are beautiful” in order to remind every person that they are beautiful in their own way. He started this movement by printing and posting 100 stickers in common areas around the city. Hoffman eventually created a website where people from around the world can order their own batches of stickers by mail. The stickers instantly became a hit. "The reaction was surprisingly positive. It just gave people a smile and a little extra burst of energy," says Hoffman. The movement then became a worldwide phenomenon—having printed more than 500,000 stickers and delivered to places such as China and Antarctica. And according to Hoffman, "I think that this is a message that everyone needs to hear. Maybe not every day, but occasionally — and just at the right times." Hoffman has created an art exhibit which was held through March 7, 2013 and is currently working on a book that would document the journey of his “You Are Beautiful” project.

Beauty and the Fashion Industry

Source 7: Dawson, A. (2011). What is beauty and who has it? Retrieved from

Multibillion dollar beauty and fashion industries shape and depend on the cult-like worship of the physical attributes that people define as beautiful. Several studies indicate that beauty is equated with symmetry. However, that standard is rapidly changing in America. That change is most evident in the growing number of interracial marriages and the all-American look today is much more of a hybrid. Moreover, beauty campaigns nowadays have been embracing a whole spectrum of women—from blonde to brunette and fair-skinned to deep. According to Le Grand from L'Oreal Group, the world’s largest beauty company, there is a link between beauty and diversity. Diversity could be expressed in various ways such as women with freckles, curvier women, and women who are 45 years and older. Beauty magazines such as Marie Claire have also been focusing on the global perspective, diversity, and unusual beauty. The fashion industry is shifting along with the economy. This shift is reflected on the calling out of inequities and a growing commitment towards inclusiveness. Bethann Hardison, model, modeling agent, and Vogue Italia editor, says that "The word beauty is such a controversial word. I think that the more that there's exposure (of different kinds of looks), and as long as you expose them consistently, you give people a chance to see what could also be beautiful besides what came before."

Symmetry as a Guide

Facial symmetry is a universal concept when it comes to beauty, but it could symbolize different types of attractiveness. Mating is a dominant concept when it comes to beauty and biology; those who are in better health tend to be able to have children and be strong enough to support them. Symmetry can represent good genes and evolutionarily indicate good mating capabilities. On the other hand asymmetries is highly associated with abnormalities, like Down Syndrome. [3]

Source 8: Welsh, J. (2012). Samantha Brick's Claim Reveals Science of Beauty. Retrieved from

Good symmetry shows that a person is genetically capable of surviving development, is healthy, and is a good and fertile choice for mating. Randy Thornhill, Evolutionary Biologist of the University of New Mexico, found that both men and women rated members of opposite sex with symmetrical faces and bodies as more attractive and in better health compared to their less symmetrical counterparts. In 2009, a study published in the International Journal of Primatology indicated that colour can make a difference in facial attractiveness—saying that the light, yellowish complexion of Caucasians looks the healthiest. This is due to the healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, whose pigments can change the hue of a person’s skin colour. Moreover, researchers at Tel Aviv University have even created a “beauty machine” that can transform a face into the more attractive version of someone. This machine does not only show the human ideal of a perfectly beautiful face, but it also helps plastic surgeons create that vision.

Source 9: Dingfelder, S. (n.d.). Pretty faces: Easy on the brain?. Retrieved March 25, 2014, from

Judie Langlois, PhD, produced an experiment that proved that beauty is not able to simply be perceived as a result of inference and hierarchical systems of interpreting. The article concludes that Judie’s work examined a sample of infants as young as two months old were presented attractive versus not attractive faces and preferred the more attractive ones. Impossible that these infants have been exposed to cultural evaluations of what is beautiful their preference of the more attractive faces came from an innate ability to respond to what is beautiful. The experiment conducted also placed neuro-signal receptors on 57 adults and 42 4-month-olds and noted that there was more brain activity involved in comprehending and placing unattractive faces in context than there is when placing the beautiful with the good. The findings suggest that beauty is something we are wired to look for and is an evolutionary trait that all humans have.

Empirical Data

Source 10:Rhodes, G., Proffitt, F., Grady, J. M., & Sumich, A. (1998). Facial symmetry and the perception of beauty. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(4), 659-669. Retrieved from

In this source, a couple experiments were conducted to investigate whether digitally perfected and manipulated images of symmetrical faces and the original or normal image would be more attractive than the other. There were 64 subjects (32 male, and 32 female) that were involved. Subjects were to respond to opposite-sex faces, and rate all four versions of each face by:
Attractiveness (1=not attractive at all, 10=very attractive)
Symmetry (1=not symmetric at all, 10=perfectly symmetric)
Appeal for a lifetime mate (1=not at all appealing, 10=very appealing)
When it came to symmetry ratings, they were always asked last so it wouldn't affect any of the ratings of attractiveness and mate appeal.


The image to the right shows examples of the face images used to conduct the study. They vary from low, normal, high, and perfect symmetry.

To further understand this study conducted on facial symmetry, we must distinguish 2 different types of symmetry stated:

  1. Fluctuating asymmetry: "randomly distributed across individuals in a population, so there is no consistent left-right bias in the population as a whole. Result from environmental or genetic stresses which are indicators of mate quality"(Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady & Sumich, 660)
  2. Directional asymmetry: "include systematic biases for the left side of the face to be larger and more expressive than the right, because of this, a face will be somewhat asymmetric in the absence of any stresses during development; that is perfect symmetry will not be a norm."(Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady & Sumich, 660)

Experiment 1 Specifications

In this experiment, the images of faces used contained many levels of symmetry and was used to also analyze the effect on attractiveness. There were four sets of images; perfect, high symmetry, normal, low symmetry. The participants measured the attractiveness first and then proceeded to the rating the life mate appeal and finally rating the level of symmetry, to even see whether they recognized it or not. The following is the method of experiment 1:


64 males and females.


Black and white digital photos of both males and females, frontal view depicting no expression and these images were organized into multiple booklets.


Firstly, subjects had to rate attractiveness (1-10, 10 being very attractive) then, attractiveness of potential life mate and finally, rate symmetry of faces all using the same scale for attractiveness. Again, the symmetry ratings were made last so that the attractiveness rate would not be tampered with by the possibility of seeing symmetry within those photos.


Three way analyses of variance (ANOVA) were performed on the mean of attractiveness and symmetry ratings, looking sex of subject and sex of face as the variables. A two way ANOVA was performed as well for the mean potential mate appeal ratings. These analyses were to be used to investigate further between the differences of symmetry levels.

Mean attractiveness:

Perfect symmetry was deemed to be attractive than low symmetry in the results but was was more interesting is that the normal and high symmetry faces, they had approximately the same results.

Mate Appeal ratings (opposite-sex faces only):

For this part of the study, it had the same result as the previous, that perfect symmetry was the most attractive while low wasn't but normal and high again had almost the same amount. But one notable difference would be that the males participating found it to be more fundamental to have symmetry in the female's face than for the females participating.

Symmetry ratings:

The subjects were aware of the symmetry differences when asked.


The results illustrated in this study showed that facial symmetry was quite an important factor in facial attractiveness but should not be considered as the only component of attractiveness. The ratings for attractiveness and life mate appeal were distinctly correlated. This might indicated that the rating of attractiveness involves itself predominantly with the notion of sexual attractiveness. Since the faces in the images with perfect facial symmetry did not receive the highest ratings, it should be noted that symmetry again, is not the only determinant.

Experiment 2 Specifications

Experiment 2 is in result of the potential problems there could have been in the first one. In the first experiment, the blending used to create symmetry in the photos that were perfect could have potentially led the faces photos to look more attractive and not the actual symmetry or normal features of the faces. Rather than 4 sets of varied faces, there are 3 in this one: normal, high, perfect. They were all blended faces so that there wasn't any obscurity in any of the faces. In the images, there were two aspects of it that was changed which is "shape" and "texture". "Shape information refers the spaces in between the landmark areas in an image and texture informations refers to variations in the pattern of light and dark across an image." (Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady & Sumich, 664)The landmark areas are distinct points in the specific face that shows the uniqueness and locations of the face (i.e. arch of the eyebrow-different landmarks on everyone's face). The following is the method of experiment 2:


60 students both males and females


New "normal" versions of each face were digitally created by blending the low and high symmetry versions of images from Experiment 1.


Each subject had to make choices and rate the attractiveness, mate appeal and symmetry of faces. Symmetry choices were made last again so that they wouldn’t skew the idea of attractiveness when it came to rating it.
Three way ANOVAS were used for the mean of symmetry preference scores for attractiveness and symmetry categories. The different pairs used in study were normal-high, high-perfect and normal-perfect.


For all of the pairs, it was found that a more symmetrical face, the one with the greatest difference, normal-perfect was one of preference, which was followed by normal high and then high perfect. It would be hypothesized that the high perfect would have gotten the greatest ratings but it was not so according to this. But what was similar from experiment 1 was that males, again cared more about symmetry than females did.

Mate appeal Ratings (opposite-sex faces only):

The result again was leaning towards men preferring a more symmetrical face in a female than a females looks for in a male.

Symmetry Ratings:

Accuracy was demonstrated when it came to rating symmetry. Accuracy did not matter between genders but accuracy was higher for male faces than female faces in normal high and normal perfect faces.

Results and Discussion

Before beginning the study, it was believed that facial symmetry was something to look for in facial attractiveness. By changing and manipulating the photos of the faces and its symmetry, there was an ongoing investigation about whether natural or man-made symmetry was attractive or not. In Experiment 1, there was a variation of natural and unnatural symmetry in the faces and when the symmetry was greater the attractiveness of the face increased. In Experiment 2, all of the faces were blended and those that were perfect were preferred over the less symmetric faces. When it came to a potential mate choice or rating, the results were similar; greater the symmetry in the face, the attractiveness would be greater. It is quite important to distinguish that the results from the males showed that they preferred more symmetrical faces than their counterparts. It suggests that the attractiveness of the female is correlated with the idea of femininity and those that look more feminine so to say are deemed to be more attractive. So, having a larger jaw or thicker eyebrows and some asymmetrical attributes makes you potentially unattractive.[3] Well there are other factors that might imply attractiveness in symmetry, for example the health of the person showing that they have lasted and adapted to the ever-changing nature of the planet which shows their quality of the person. [5] But what was learned from this study was the facial symmetry is attractive and that the the notion of attractiveness is something biological or innate.

Symmetry is some sort of a pattern recognition; like in the study, symmetry was noticed in the faces. The greater the symmetry or asymmetry we notice it more often than not and we make a guess whether the person is attractive or not. This lends to the theory of top-down processing and how humans perceive beauty can be distinguished using past experiences as our data (what we deemed to be attractive) to determine whether the person in the current situation fits the bill. We have all experienced "the guessing" part when it comes to deciding whether is someone is attractive, like when you see someone from afar it may seem that they meet your "standards" or "experiences" but once they come closer you've changed your mind because you had previously arranged an incorrect hypotheses of the person. [2]

Source 11: Budesheim, T. L., & DePaola, S. J. (1994). Beauty or the Beast? The Effects of Appearance, Personality and Issue Information on Evalutions of Political Candidates. Sage Journals, 1(Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin), 1-11.

This source looks at a different view of the perception of beauty. How is it applied to political leaders and can also be extrapolated to normal people every day. The study was conducted where 120 students aged 18 to 51 participated in the study to fulfil a course requirement. The study hypothesizes that personal attractiveness, and personality have impacts on the voting system. 24 subjects were assigned to each of the 5 different categories of political involvement. The findings concluded that in examination of the influence of personality, when described as kind and caring the votes were more likely to be in their favour. The purpose of this source and its usefulness in answering the question at hand is that the researchers suggest that beauty is not only an innate characteristic we are programmed to find. Personality can not be found in tangible items which must mean we infer from past experience that was is said to kind must mean good. Personal appearance was also found to activate a stereotype which led to the inference of character traits of the political candidates. Information and findings within this study are helpful in looking at beauty in a more subjective way and analyzing man’s attractiveness to personality and representation. This source lends well to a view of Top-Down processing.

Beauty is in the Eyes of the Majority of Beholders


Samples of photographs manipulated by TAU's "Beauty Machine."
Original photographs in top row; manipulated photographs in bottom row.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Source 12: American Friends of Tel Aviv University. (2008). 'Beauty Machine' Makes Average Face A Knockout With A Single Click. Retrieved from

Researchers from Tel Aviv University invented a software called the “beautification engine,” also known as the "beauty machine" that can guide plastic surgeons, magazine editors, and may even possibly be incorporated into all digital cameras. Prof. Daniel Cohen-Or of the Blavatnik School of Computer Sciences at Tel Aviv University declares that, "Beauty, contrary to what most people think, is not simply in the eye of the beholder. (It) can be quantified by mathematical measurements and ratios. It can be defined as average distances between features, which a majority of people agree are the most beautiful." In his study, Cohen-Or and his colleagues asked 68 Israeli and German men and women, aged 25 to 40, to rank the beauty of 93 different men’s and women’s faces on a scale of 1 to 7. The scores were then entered into a database and correlated to 250 different measurements and facial features, such as ratios of the nose, chin and distance from ears to eyes. An algorithm of “desirable elements of attractiveness” was then created to reveal a fresh image—turning an ordinary face into that of a cover model. They say that the 'beauty machine' is more subtle than Photoshop. However, it does not work well when changing a celebrity's face (eg. Brigitte Bardot and Woody Allen). Prof. Cohen-Or now plans on developing the beauty machine by adding a third dimension of depth.

Britt, R. (2008). 'Beauty machine' makes everyone pretty. Retrieved from
Tommerley. (2008, September 30). Data-Driven Enhancement of Facial Attractiveness (SIGGRAPH 2008) [Video file]. Retrieved from

1. "perception". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 08, 2014).
2. McLeod, S. (2007). Visual Perception Theory. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from
3. Rhodes, G. (2006). THE EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY OF FACIAL BEAUTY. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 199-226. Retrieved from
4. Edmonds, Molly. "10 Ways the Definition of Beauty Has Changed" 27 July 2011. <> 20 March 2014.
5. Little, A., & Perrett, D. (2002, 01). Putting beauty back in the eye of the beholder. Psychologist, 15, 28. Retrieved from

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