Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder, or is it in his Genes?

Wyler, Theresah, Fahima, Wilson


Individuals have varying perceptions in how they measure physical attraction; this inquiry project seeks to understand the psychological phenomena of physical attraction that will indicate if beauty is a phenomenon of perception. Our attempt to analyze the objective and subjective processes of perceiving beauty will depend on the variables of evolution, societal influences, genetics, gender, and cultural influences. Using the dichotomies of nature vs nurture, physical attraction based on one’s heredity and environment will indicate how individuals in a society perceive physical attraction. The purpose of this research is to enhance the writer's ability to understand the phenomenon of beauty.

Approaching the Phenomenon of Beauty from an Evolutionary Perspective

Damasio: the body’s subjective construction of perception and its influence on judging beauty

The individual’s perception on Damasio’s account, depends on the brains ability to regulate images of both internal (bodily) and external (sensory region) events. Central nervous system “body maps” (neuron information of the body presented to the brain) provide information of the sensory regions of the brain to the higher functioning frontal cortex that allows the individual to basically formulate their own taste or judgment for a particular experienced situation based on their conception of the received body image via feelings. Damasio insists that the creation of external images in the body-brain mechanism is an idiosyncratic quality of people’s subjective perceptions such that external images prompt a set of neural correspondent brain constructs that are identified by the “posteriori tokens” of the mind that is independent of the external object. In other words the ability of our physiology to formulate an image that interacts with external sources yet is constructed as a perception independent of the external source in the form of an inner feeling suggest that our perception is a unique quality of the perceiver’s subjective state. The body’s ability to transform its externally received sensory information that combines with the qualities of the perceiver (thoughts and feelings, inner states) suggests the notion of “perception being a product of the beholder.” This idea of the subjects inherent influence to information that is initally received outside of the subject suggests the idea of Khanman’s top down processing of information.

Damasio, A. (2003). The Construction of Reality. In Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain (p. 198). Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt.

Innate Sense of Beauty

The judgment of infants to prefer attractive faces was measured in their duration of looking (starring) at a presented image that was rated by adults as attractive then as unattractive. The minimal influence of external factors in establishing an inherent bias in judgment demonstrates the ability of measuring the innate preference for beauty in infants. The results indicated that infants (2-months) starred longer at beautiful faces (rated by adults) then less beautiful faces thus demonstrating the ability of infants to have a pre conception of beauty that is able to recognize and distinguish between beautiful from its non beautiful aspects. This early aged acquired ‘preference’ indicates the possibility of an innate mechanism for establishing a judgment of beauty based on the behaviour of the infant (duration of face time exposure between infant and subject).

Henderson, M., & Slater, D. (2004, January 1). Gene Expression: Innate sense of beauty. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from

Beautiful is in the Brain

The study of visual attractiveness in humans is measured by the stimulation of an attractive face to an observer indicating an approval of the attractiveness by the stimulation of reward centers in the brain. The subjects were presented with various images while the MRI measured the changes in brain circuitry to the 6 identified major evolutionary reward centres in humans : evidence in stimulation to these regions in response to monetary and drug rewards ( NAc, SLEA,basal forebrain, amygdla, Gob, VT.) Control to variable module in attention of stimuli was evaluated.

Aeasthetic qualities measured by behavioral responses; the presented image of an attractive face to the subjects who had control over the duration of the image being presented on the screen via keyboard pressing. Longer duration suggests greater influence of the image on the subject.
Experimenter I, Aharon(2001) suggests that: “Such congruence of findings between brain regions producing responses at the spatial scale of cubic millimeters of tissue and reward stimuli that induce activity in these brain regions supports the thesis of a common generalized circuitry that processes reward information across category and dissects discrete features of such stimuli for the planning of behaviour”(P. 549) This indicates that their is evidence that when an individual perceives an attractive face it produces a physiological correlative response of a “variable reward value” that could influence behaviour. (in this case holding a key for duration of presented picture) This may have further implications in explaining the common experience of a man or women’s change of bodily states (sweaty palms, increase heart rate, anxiety) when experiencing the attraction to a person of the opposite sex. Furthermore these organs of reward systems in the brain that activate when confronted with the species of an opposite sex could be evolutionary signals that promote the reproduction of the species based on the idea of a stimulus and reward system. The main idea is that experiencing physical attraction could be the brains reward in itself. Furthermore the direct processing of stimuli in the environment to forming a mental image gives to idea of bottom-up processing. Maybe its true when they say that you can't get enough pleasure from an attractive person.

Aharon, I., Etcoff, N., & Ariely, D. (2001, November 1). Beautiful Faces Have Variable Reward Value. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from

The Utility of Darwinian Attraction

Parasite theory and sexual selection in a nutshell proposes the attraction of homo sapiens based on their ability to identify the opposite sex’s bodily forms that serve as biological cues to parasite resistance in animals when choosing mates. Sexual secondary characteristics (chin, jaw, in men and check bones in women) that evolved on high levels of testosterone (men) estrogen (female) are correlated to a strong immune system in resisting parasites that could increase the overall ability for the propagation of offspring and thus species survival. (Keating, 1985) That the formation of these secondary sex characteristics is dependent on bilateral symmetry of the organism’s facial/bodily structure with the function of “resisting genetic and environmental perturbations” indicates that the identification of these physiological characteristics is consistent with reproductive advantages. (Hamilton & Zuk, 1982) Thus the secondary sex characteristics that are claimed to benefit species survival are based on the relation of bodily features to promoting the attraction of one sex to another by their ability to resist harmful bacteria. The shape and size of these physical characteristics indicate their inherent utility for species reproduction by their physical appearance to the individual member of the species.(Darwin, 1871;Symons, 1979) The preference of men for averageness of bilateral body and facial symmetry was presented more consistently in the computer grafted faces then women’s material faces.(Grammar, 1994) Women preferred largeness rather then averageness of facial features. Overall the study indicated a positive correlation between facial symmetry and facial attractiveness in promoting the range of sexual selection.(Grammar, 1994) Basing the preferences of the body and facial features on properties of measurement it served a dual purpose of: forming a bond of attraction between individuals and the utility of resisting the deterioration to offspring by environmental factors thus rendering offspring more likely. The inherent biological tendency of humans to render sexual characteristics with the purpose of copulation promotes the idea of beauty being most effective during a period of the highest reproductive fitness of the individual.
For more particulars on facial and bodily symmetry and facial attractiveness along with an in depth discussion of the role of sexual dimorphism and sexual selection please see the link of the article below followed by pages 237-241.
Grammer, K. (1994, January 1). Human Facial Attractiveness and Sexual Selection. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from

The Judgment of Beauty and its Aesthetic Value

David Hume: “Of the Standard of Taste and other Essays”

Hume(1757) claims that our perception of beauty is dependent upon our subjective conception formed of it thus the experience of beauty requires the interaction of our inherent expectations and preferences to the object represented: “ Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. To seek in the real beauty, or real deformity, is as fruitless an enquiry, as to pretend to ascertain the real sweet or real bitter." (P.183)
“Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feeling.”(P.185) Hume recognizes the inherent properties of material objects to represent a direct relationship to the individual’s perception and resulted reaction to the external object. Beauty is constructed on the basis of our judgment of it though he claims that our inner constitution has the affect of “priming” that influences the contemplation of the object. There needs to be a relationship in the quality of an object and the inner qualities of the perceiver in order for the individual to recgonize the object as beautiful. Yet to account for the variety of appreciations for beauty, hume insists on the idiosyncratic qualities of the perceiver in judging the phenomenon of beauty. This interactionist approach between the subjective and objective states of the individual and the external environment suggests there is no direct source that constitutes the phenomenon of beauty.

Hume, D., & Lenz, J. (1965). Of the standard of taste, and other essays (p. 185). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Edmund Burke on Beauty and Its Measure

Burke (1757) claims that: "Beauty is found indifferently in all the proportions which each kind can admit, without quitting its common form; and it is this idea of a common form that makes the proportion of parts at all regarded, and not the operation of any natural cause: indeed a little consideration will make it appear, that it is not measure, but manner, that creates all the beauty which belongs to shape."(P.175) Burke describes the phenomenon of attraction amongst humans as a quality possessed by the individual. In the contemplation of the perculiars of personality, Burke suggests that beauty’s true measure is not to be represented in “mathematical proportionality” but rather in the sentimental quality of the perceiver. Burke also challenges the idea of a uniform principle of proportionality to account for the measure of beauty: “For if beauty be attached to certain measures which operate from a principle in nature, why should similar parts with different measures of proportion be found to have beauty, and this too in the very same species? and whilst they agree in producing this effect (loviness), they differ extremely in the relative measures of those parts which have produced it.”(P.173) By comparing the masterpieces of ancient and modern statuary, Burke claims the quantity of statues presented created a variation of qualities and proportions yet all reflected a common appreciation for its “aesthetic beauty.” This critique of natural proportionality of beauty challenges the idea of a deterministic set of biological requirement’s that constitute the phenomenon of beauty such that the intrinsic qualities of the observer are more likely favoured in judging beauty rather then a set of physical structures imposed by nature.

Burke, E. (1757). A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (p. 175). London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley in Pall-mall.

Media & Societal Perceptions of Beauty

Social Influences – Judgments of Beauty

Under a series of meta-analyses, according to Feingold, “it is shown that men valued physical attractiveness more in a romantic partner than did women. On the other hand, women valued socioeconomic status and ambitiousness more in a partner than did men.” When conducting research, it is important to note that the reports given by the women may not entirely be accurate because although women report that physical attractiveness is not as important when picking a romantic partner, the physical appearances of men still comes into consideration. Studies have shown that women evaluate physical attraction through characteristics like large eyes, which is shown to be physically appealing. Other aspects that men portrays to be physically appealing to women is when they convey a cooperative and pro-social behaviour or maximizing the survival or reproductive prospects of potential offspring. Most of these characteristics described through research, indicates a significant amount of emphasis on how the men act in a social environment rather then how they are perceived. For example, a social factor that effects a women judgment on men are based off of ratings that are made by same-sex peers – these ratings upon men are often negative which portrays the unattractiveness of a man and illustrate why the man is not good enough for them. It is shown that women were more influenced by peer evaluations than men were.

Graziano, W. G., Jensen-Campbell, L., Shebilske, L. J., & Lundgren, S. R. (1993). Social influence, sex differences, and judgments of beauty: Putting the interpersonal back in interpersonal attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(3), 522-531. doi:

Effects of Weight and Shape on Attractiveness

Women perceives body weight and their hip circumference to be an attractive trait that they possess. Once these traits are irregular to the ideal body figure (IF), women are more prone to weight control in order to reach this ideal body state. Strategies such as dieting, anorexia nervosa, along with bulimia nervosa are extremely dangerous to the body which can potentially be life threatening. The reason why many people strive to control/maintain their body weight or try to reach a certain body figure is because they exhibit the characteristics of low self-esteem – which leads to the outcome of body dissatisfaction. Body image dissatisfaction is a concept that has a detrimental effects upon a women's body, along with their overall health conditions. Although some women may be able to reach the ideal body figure through hard work; the process of getting to such a body figure without a healthy diet or a proper eating method can be extremely severe. All in all, the mentality that women places upon their body figure is that – if they can reach a certain body weight and shape, the society would be less likely to negatively judge them by the way they were, prior to the ideal body figure. The mentality around this ideal body figure is mainly for the society to perceive and praise on the notion that they are an attractive figure.

Forestell, C. A., Humphrey, T. M., & Stewart, S. H. (2004). Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? effects of weight and shape on attractiveness ratings of female line drawings by restrained and nonrestrained eaters. Eating Behaviors, 5(2), 89-101. doi:

Effects of Having a Physically Attractive Partner on Person Perception

An individual's physical attractiveness plays an important interpersonal relationship with the surrounding society. There are two main findings in terms of being physically attractive; the first one is good looking people have greater social power, which translate into having a more persuasive impact on certain evaluations in comparison to their counterparts. The second finding is that if everything between the couples are equal, physically attractive individuals are liked better than unattractive individuals. The article examines how the impressions of others would be affected in regards to the attractiveness/beauty of the counterpart. This article demonstrates a significant portrayal on the societal perceptions of beauty; as the society are constantly making comparisons and judgements on the physical features of others. Furthermore, the perceptions of others does not only affect individual's socially, but rather mentally as well – which would be discussed by another member in the group…

Sigall et al., “Radiating beauty: Effects of having a physically attractive partner on person perception.”(1973) American Psychological Association. Print. Pg. 218-224:

Effects of Age, Height and Weight on Self-reported Personality Traits and Social Behaviour

The focus of this article is based on body morphology and how it affects the perceptions of others in the society. By having a higher body mass composition for example, this may lead to a high emotionality personality trait along with a poor perception from others. It is hypothesized that an increased weight individual would be constrained in the society with minimal social involvement and satisfaction. The effects of age upon an individual in the society is that usually as a person age into adulthood, they become more responsible. In contrast to the increased-in-weight individual, it was hypothesized that increasing age is associated with being outgoing, having a socially desirable personality characteristics with a good amount of social involvement and satisfaction in life. Whereas if an individual were in the child/teenage period, they are more fearful of negative evaluations from others. The body morphology in this case illustrates that no matter which type of personality and body trait one's possesses, they will always be socially criticized and perceived by others whether it is positive or negative.

Adams, Gerald R., “Social psychology of beauty: Effects of age, height, and weight on self-reported personality traits and social behavior.” (1980) Heldred Publications. Print. Pg. 287-293

Cultural Perceptions of Beauty

Culture refers to collective groups of individuals in society who have common ideas towards certain beliefs, ideals and events. Whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder or in one’s genes, this concept never seems to have a definite answer. There are many cultures around the world who share very different opinions and perceptions of beauty.
Mursi-Tribe-of-Ethiopia.jpg Kayan-Tribe-elongated-neck.jpg

African Tribe: Discs placed in the mouth to stretch lips Kayan Tribe: Brass rings to elongate neck

Cosmopolitan. (2015). Long necks, stretched lips, and other beauty standards from around the world. Retrieved April 12, 2015, from

Video | National Geographic - What is Beauty?

This video and photo slide show presents a very interesting point on how cultural perceptions can differ and how they have developed through the years, being passed on from one generation to the next. The Kayan tribe presents their beauty through long necks, where brass rings are put around the necks of girls from a very young age so that their necks would stretch and elongate. Other such cultures that have a different way of showing and expressing beauty would be the African and some Amazonian tribes where they place discs in their mouths so that their lips are stretched. These characteristic enhancement practices have been used since years, and are still being practiced today. The video opens up our eyes to see different cultures and the way they perceive beauty.

National Geographic. [National Geographic] (2012, March 26). National Geographic live! Jodi Cobb: What is beauty? [Video file]. Retrieved from

Website | Beauty Standards Around the World - Beauty in Different Cultures


These sources present the idea that cultures or even countries around the world share different perceptions of beauty. The woman, whose photo was photo-shopped multiple times by different people around the world, really shows how certain environments, situations, values and beliefs reflect individuals way of thinking. From India to China to Morocco, these countries all have their own perception on how they see beauty, some see attraction in light skin while another may view coloured eyes as a major feature of beauty

The Huffington Post UK. (2014). This woman’s picture was photoshopped in 25 countries - what it reveals about beauty is jaw-dropping. Retrieved April 12, 2015, from

Journal Article | Changing perceptions of attractiveness as observers are exposed to a different culture

Certain physical features of a species shows their health potential, which allows natural selection to take place. Different cultures have different key features which are passed along. This study’s main goal was to examine whether beauty based on cultural perceptions could change when individuals move or have a change in their environment. The study shows that there are major differences in attractiveness likings for female bodies between South African Zulu observers and United Kingdom (UK) Caucasians. In environments where a specific feature that is vital is different due to environmental pressures, the attractiveness preference should also show some change. The “results suggest that humans have mechanisms for acquiring norms of attractiveness that are highly plastic, which allow them to track different ecological conditions through learning”. As a result, preferences are changeable and should alter with contact to different environments and conditions so that one can learn to adapt and survive in that given state.

“In many traditional, non-Western settings, it is argued that body fat is believed to be an indicator of wealth and prosperity, with obesity as a symbol of economic success, femininity, and sexual capacity”. The South African Zulus, had this type of ideal and belief, which is far different than the Caucasians from UK. The state in which the Zulus live in has a huge impact on the way they perceive beauty. Food is a luxury for poor countries, so when a women is plump and big in SA, they are perceived more attractive than those who are thin. The surrounding environment and the resources availability is crucial to how people prioritize and perceive beauty.

Tovée, M. J., Swami, V., Furnham, A., & Mangalparsad, R. (2006). Changing perceptions of attractiveness as observers are exposed to a different culture. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(6), 443-456. doi:

Journal Article | Sex and Racial Differences in Perceptions of the Physical Attractiveness of Women

A study from the University of Central Florida shows that there is an ideal that consists of certain traits that are preferred, thinner body frames and larger breasts. The standard of beauty varies across cultures and demographic groups. Some cultures have certain preferences for thinner body and larger upper body while others prefer strength and body mass. Physical perfection indeed plays a vital role in today’s society. The American culture has created an image or an ideal that places women into molds of female beauty. Certain characteristics and traits are considered more attractive than others. The research that had been conducted looks into whether people really follow this ideal. The study was to find out whether male perception of beauty is different from the female and whether race plays a role or influences this perception. The results showed that both genders and race differences did exist in the perception and that there is a correlation between gender and race in relation to the perception of beauty.

Sewell, R. (2013). What is appealing?: Sex and racial differences in perceptions of the physical attractiveness of women. The University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal, 6 (2). Retrieved from

Social Psychological Perceptions of Beauty

Definitions |

Social Psychology

“The branch of psychology devoted to social behaviour in all its forms, including altruism, attitudes, social compliance, conformity, obedience to authority, person perception, attribution processes, group dynamics, group polarization, and non-verbal communication.”

Coleman, A.M. (2009). Social Psychology. In A dictionary of psychology (3 rd ed.). doi: 10.1093/acref/9780199534067.001.0001

Halo Effect

“In person perception, a generalization from the perception of one prominent or salient characteristic, trait, or personality attribute to an impression of the personality as a whole, leading to inflated correlations between rated characteristics.”

Coleman, A.M. (2009). Halo Effect. In A dictionary of psychology (3 rd ed.). doi: 10.1093/acref/9780199534067.001.0001

Video | The Halo Effect – Science of Attraction

Researchers use the psychological notion of the halo effect to explain the psychological phenomenon human attraction. Researcher Kat Akingbade (2010) explains how the halo effect impacts one’s initial attraction to someone and first impressions on dating. The researchers hypothesized that the variables of facial characteristics, voice tones, and personality influence’s one’s perception of attraction. Using experimental methodology, the study focused the variables of: facial characteristics, voice tones, and personality. The study involved eight women separated into two groups, with half of the women watching the upbeat video while the other half watched the down beat video. The researchers instructed Mr. X to record two different dating video with the same script with one video recorded with a positive cheerful approach and the other one with a dry monotone approach.

The study concludes by having group one liking Mr. X and with three out of the four girls deciding to go on a date with him, and with group two having three out of the four girls deciding not to go on a date with him. At the end of the experiment the researchers debriefed the girls about the true nature of the experiment, explaining the concept of the halo effect. Despite the results proving the experiment’s hypothesis, the study had some limitations which may have created biases in the experiment. When group one watched the cheerful video, they were sitting on a bed, while group two watched the downbeat video sitting at a table. It would have been more effective if the two groups of women watched the video with the same setting and perhaps individually to prevent at any impacts of group think. This video can be used to demonstrate how methods in experimental social psychology can provide valuable information about judgements in human attraction. This video presents a practical approach to the study of psychology, making it easy for various individuals to grasp theoretical concepts in psychology and apply it to everyday life. The video demonstrates how group dynamics impacts people perceptions and feelings towards one another.

Science of Attraction. [Science of Attraction]. (2010, November 4). The halo effect – science of attraction [Video file]. Retrieved from

Journal Article | Beyond Physical Attractiveness: Interpersonal Attraction as a Function of Similarities in Personal Characteristics

Researchers Park and Lennon (2008) explain the psychological phenomenon of human attraction by emphasising the importance of interpersonal attraction. Using experimental methodology, an experiment was conducted by assess physical attraction based on the physical attraction and the similar characteristics of a specific person (Park & Lennon, 2008). The primary goal of the study was is to use a deeper analysis of physical attraction by focusing on the similarities and the many factors involved in one’s personal characteristics and its impact on attraction (Park & Lennon, 2008). The study involved having the research subjects rating three pictures of varying levels of attractiveness by rating each picture compared to them based on their personal characteristics (Park & Lennon, 2008). Their study concluded that personal characterises (attitudes, physical, and demographic traits) strongly impacts one’s interpersonal attraction to another (Park & Lennon, 2008).

The researches explain how previous research findings correlate physical attraction as an advantage in social status compared to those deemed unattractive. Using the theoretical notion of similar attraction theory, the researchers explain how people’s attraction to one another depends on the similarities they have with each other. Park and Lennon also discuss research stressing the importance of one’s appearance when perceiving their initial attraction and personal characteristics (Park & Lennon, 2008). This article demonstrates how human attraction is influenced by similarities people have with one other. Regarding the debate of human attraction being based on nature or nurture, the researchers discuss both sides of the argument through interpersonal communication.

Park, H., & Lennon, S. J. (2008). Beyond physical attractiveness: Interpersonal attraction as a function of similarities in personal characteristics. Clothing & Textiles Research Journal, 26(4), 275-289. doi:

Book | The Psychology of Physical Attraction


Psychologists Swami and Furnham (2008) created a book discussing the psychological phenomenon of human attraction. The book provides many different perspectives in measuring human attraction, as discussed previously this book incorporates aspects of evolution, culture, and societal perceptions in human attraction. There are specific sections in the book that focus on aspects of social psychology to explain the psychology of human attraction. The book discusses the social psychology of human beauty by exploring the position of different ideals of beauty (Swami & Furnham, 2008). Swami and Furnham developed a comprehensive book discussing the historical, cultural, and theoretical aspects of human physical attraction. Touching on Darwin’s theories on natural selection to interpersonal aspects involved in physical attraction. This book presents the nature versus nurture aspect of physical attraction by examining historical and contemporary perspectives of this psychological phenomenon. This enables the reader to understand the different components involved in psychology and how theoretical concepts can be applied to understanding everyday life.

Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2008). The psychology of physical attraction. London ; New York: Routledge.

What is Beautiful is Good

Though the research indicates physically attractive individuals are more likely to possess socially desirable traits amongst their peers, the study doesn’t aesthetically constitutes beauty in its form of the individual perceiving beauty or any characteristic of beauty itself. Rather the experiment based beauty on the level of attractiveness observed among college students (various ethneticities) who were asked to judge a scale of attractiveness and a scale of personality traits of social utility such: social acceptance, martial status, job status.(Dion, 1974) Basing their first impression of the picture presented to the subjects, they would judge if the represented individual possessed more socially desirable personality traits and if they would lead social standing lives. The results indicated a positive correlation between physical facial attractiveness and social desirable traits based on the ratings of North-American college students from a variety of ethnic groups.(Walster, 1974) This gives to the notion of a bias in judgement of attractive individuals in that their facial features that meet the common cultural standard of beauty possess more socially dominant traits hence more likely of a positive image being accepted amongst peer groups. Maybe this gives to the idea that attractive people are more likely to get off for criminal charges (speeding ticket) or are more likely to be hired then the less physically appealing individual.

K Dion, E Berscheid, E Walster (1972, January 1). What is Beautiful is Good. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from

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