Is Beauty really in the Eye of the Beholder?
Welcome to our page. This is a collection of research which will be useful to the study of beauty perception as a psychological phenomenon. In particular we are interested in the debate as to whether the perception of beauty is a top-down or bottom-up process.


The act, process, or product of perceiving, the ability or capacity to perceive, or a particular way of perceiving. In psychology, a distinction is conventionally drawn between sensation, the subjective experience or feeling that results from excitation of sensory receptors, and perception, sensory experience that has been interpreted with reference to its presumed external stimulus object or event, this distinction having first been made in 1785 by Thomas Reid (1710–96), founder of the Scottish school of psychological philosophy, who pointed out that the agreeable fragrance of a rose is merely a sensation inasmuch as it can be experienced without thinking of a rose or of any other object, whereas the perception of a rose or of anything else always refers to the external object that is its cause. (Coleman, 2009)[1]. Psychologist Richard Gregory argued that perception is a constructive process which relies on top-down processing. For Gregory, perception involves making inferences about what we see and trying to make a best guess. Prior knowledge and past experience, he argued, are crucial in perception.When we look at something, we develop a perceptual hypothesis, which is based on prior knowledge. The hypotheses we develop are nearly always correct. However, on rare occasions, perceptual hypotheses can be disconfirmed by the data we perceive.
a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. (Oxford Online Dictionary)[10]
top-down processing
Top-down processing refers to the use of contextual information in pattern recognition. For example, understanding difficult handwriting is easier when reading complete sentences than when reading single and isolated words. This is because the meaning of the surrounding words provide a context to aid understanding.
bottom-up processing
Bottom-up processing is also known as data-driven processing, because perception begins with the stimulus itself. Processing is carried out in one direction from the retina to the visual cortex, with each successive stage in the visual pathway carrying out ever more complex analysis of the input.

Beauty as a Top-Down(Learned) process


A face may vaguely remind one of a person on, or persons formerly know, and simultaneously evoke positive or negative emotional responses associated with those persons. A beautiful face, or object, is one which is pleasing to look at. By successive differentiation, discrimination learning, people come to know which faces will be pleasing look at for a long time, from many angles.

Infants prefer attractive faces

Does culture socialization explain children's preferences and stereotypes for attractive faces?
This study describes how and why infants learn to prefer attractive faces. Attractiveness is defined as averageness by Galton (1878) who found that since it’s more likely that average faces don’t have any genetic mutations, we learn to perceive them as beautiful.


Hoss & Langlois showed pairs of faces to groups of 6 month olds, as well as groups of 2-3 month olds. The images of faces included female or male, Caucasian or African-American, and other infants. The faces were rated by adults as attractive or unattractive. Using the Visual Preference or Preferential-Looking technique, the researchers determined that all the infants showed a visual preference (i.e. looked longer at) the faces that were rated as attractive.
Then, one-year-old infants were tested to see if babies have a social preference for attractive faces, as well as a visual preference. They were found to be more involved in play and positive interactions with both strangers wearing attractive masks and attractive baby dolls, as opposed to unattractive-masked strangers and dolls.
The explanation given as to how babies determine attractive (read average) faces is that they are able to cognitively average faces they encounter and form a prototype or averaged face that will now be familiar to them. So infants need some experience with faces before they learn to prefer attractive faces.
Hoss & Langlois also experimented with 15-minute-old babies and found that the newborns did not show preferences for attractive faces. The paper goes on to describe how, by around 3 years of age, children learn to apply stereotypes, such as attractive faces being associated with positive attributes.

The conclusions of this study were that culture socialization is not the best explanation for how children develop preferences and stereotypes of attractive faces. However it is not an innate phenomenon; rather experience with faces (albeit very early in life) is required before this inclination kicks in. (Hoss & Langlois, 2003) [4]

Shifting the Prototype: Experience with Faces Influences Affective and Attractiveness Preferences

A more recent study by Langlois & Principe (2012) suggests that humans possess a "domain-general cognitive mechanism" rather than a domain-specific innate beauty detector that previous research has indicated. This mechanism is shaped by experiences that constantly update the facial prototype discussed in the infant study (Hoss & Langlois, 2003). This is believed to be the underlying cause of attractiveness preferences. They tested attractiveness ratings for human-chimpanzee morphed faces. (Principe & Langlois, 2012) This study offers further support for the premise that beauty perception is a top-down process.[8]

Societal Influence

In the last decade, with the development of technology, the access to media has become effortless with smartphones and tablets . Women now can read fashion magazines and tabloid newspaper on the go and constantly update themselves with the most current beauty trends in the blink. The media creates ideals, in the form of celebrities and models, for women to admire. The more they read, the more insecure women become about there own appearance and then they try to conform to the media's perception of beauty by buying beauty products such as make-up, creams, and hair dyes recommended in these magazines. They even risk their health to have a slim figure. There are a lot of stories about women who take laxatives, diet pills or digest cotton balls to maintain this unhealthy, slim figure. When conformity increases, normalisation will occur. Men will start to have fix ideas about how a beautiful woman looks based on the perception of beauty media imposes on women, and women take it as the truth.

The promotion of cosmetic surgery in women's magazines resulted in the increased popularity of different surgeries such as breast augmentation, chemical peels, rhinoplasty and liposuction. By buying cosmetics products, following beauty tips and going for cosmetic surgery, women believe that they can fix perceived flaws to achieve ideal specific looks that media has embedded on them.

Not only women and men are under the societal influence about the beauty perception. Children learn about beauty from a lot of book stories they read and the toys they play. The old fairy tales often associate ugliness with bad and beauty with good (the story of Cinderella, a beautiful girl living with her stepmother and two"ugly" sisters). In our childhood, we can tell many time we tempted to disguise ourselves with Cinderella or Snow White costumes, expecting ourselves to be looked beautiful like a princess. The societal standards of beauty are enforced on children not only through fairy tales but also through toys. The Barbie doll has become so familiar with many baby girls. According to research, girls exposed to images of Barbie dolls reported lower body esteem and a greater desire for a thinner body shape in comparison with girls exposed to other dolls or no dolls. The obsession to have a body shape like Barbie doll has become so big that many teen girls, who later decide to go under excessive cosmetic surgery to look like a barbie doll. The photo below is of Valeria Lukyonova, a 21 year old Ukraine model, who turns herself into a living doll by plastic surgery.


Women, Beauty and Body Image Research Study

This research analyses the data collected from in-depth interviews with 44 women aged 50 to 70 years have been drawn upon to identify and discuss the ways in which women perceive, manage and present their bodies using socially-constructed ideals of beauty and femininity.

Throughout the span of their lives, women learn how to analyse, present, assess, and control their bodies. The primary agents of socialization of the cultural norms of a society are family members, especially parents. (Hagedorn 1994 ; Tepperman and Curtis 2004 ). The other important agents include media, education and peer influences. According to Chodorow, girls are mainly influenced by their mothers more so than anyone else. Through mother-daughter relationship women learn about and internalise the social construction of femininity and patriarchy. Specifically for younger girls, research has shown that mothers are the primary agents of socialization about the body and body image. (Archibald, Graber and Brooks-Gunn 2000 ; Hill and Franklin 1998 ; Lattimore, Wagner and Gowers 2000 ; Ogden and Steward 2000 ; Ogle and Damhorst 2003 , 2004 ; Rieves and Cash 1996 ; Usmiani and Daniluk 1997 ; Woodside et al. 2002 ). This research argues that rather than gender identity being an ascribed or innate personal characteristic, gender is an 'accomplishment' that is achieved through social interaction.

Body image is 'a multi-dimensional self-attitude toward one's body, particularly its size, shape, and aesthetics' (Cash, Ancis and Strachan 1997 : 433), and has 'perceptual, attitudinal, and affective components' (Striegel-Moore and Franko 2002 : 183). Myers and Biocca (1992 ) asserted that body image is elastic, situational, and the product of the individual's perceptions and internalisation of both cultural and individual body ideals, and of current body image and actual body shape. So a woman's body image is acquired in a social context in which beauty ideals, emergent gender norms, the media, and interactions with significant others shape and constrain both her experience and perception of her body (Bordo 2003 ; Paquette and Raine 2004 ; Pelican et al. 2005 ; Wolf 2002 ). The monitoring and latering of the body and one's attitudes and perceptions of body image are shaped and outlined by 'class habitus'. Habitus is a principle of tastes and preferences, which determines choices in the form of consumer and lifestyle practices along social class lines. For example, body dissatisfaction is more prominent among women of higher than lower socio-economic status and education, and others have found that the type of beauty and body work in which a woman engages is related to her socio-economic status and class affiliation (Laberge and Sankoff 1988 ; McLaren and Kuh 2004 ).

From an early age, girls learn to see the female body as an object of discrete parts that others tend to evaluate. As compared to the male body which is viewed as a tool for action and achievement. Therefore, women are socialised with the cultural norm that defines beauty as a feminine attribute, and its pursuit as a feminine responsibility' (Rodin, Silberstein and Striegel-Moore 1984 : 275). Women construct their behaviour according to the constraints of a social order that makes their appearances the primary means of judging and assigning women's social value.


Dove Real Beauty Sketches Ad

This video tackles a very general problem in society. The message in this Dove ad is the message of beauty. The reason for making this ad which became very popular on the web, was believing in the fact that you are more beautiful than you think. Be more confident in yourself. The ad shows that almost all women have a negative perception of themselves when it comes to beauty and body image. Near the conclusion of the video, it is shown that the perceptions that others (society) have of you, has a huge impact on the way you think of yourself in a positive way.

Beauty: Culture-Specific or Universally Defined?

Social constructivists argue that there is no universal definition of beauty. The reason for this is that cross-culturally there are varying components to beauty and perception. Two culture-specific examples of beauty are: (1) the wearing of large lip plates (Surma and Mursi women of Ethiopia) and (2) the neck elongation (Kareni and Padaung women of Myanmar). Social constructivists use these examples as perfect manifestations of the social construction of beauty.


//The wearing of large lip plates in Surma and Mursi women of Ethiopia. Image from:


//The neck elongation in Kareni and Padaung women of Myanmar. Image from:


The blond hair and white complexion women in the West.

Symmetric faces are universally seen as more beautiful than asymmetric faces. Whether we ask Bedouins in the Middle East, the Yanomamo in the Amazon, or Inuits in the Canadian north, they will all agree as to who is or is not beautiful. Clear skin is a universal preference. Certain morphological features that connote masculinity (square jaw) or femininity (high-cheek bones) are preferred in all cultures. It is therefore true that many metrics of beauty are socially constructed. However, it is unequivocally clear that many others are universally defined, as these constitute cues of phenotypic qualities that hold true irrespective of cultural setting or time period.


Beauty as a Bottom-Up(Innate) process


Facial symmetry is something appreciated cross-culturally, however it may be associated to different types of attractiveness. Evolutionarily speaking, facial symmetry may be a biological signal of good genetic development. Higher incidence of asymmetry among people with chromosomal abnormalities supports this theory.[9]
  • Two kinds of Asymmetry
  1. Directional Asymmetry: This occurs consistently throughout a population. It is not produced by stresses during development and are not found to be indicators of mate quality.[9]
  2. Fluctuating Asymmetry: This is randomly distributed and caused by environmental or genetic stresses during development, so it may be reliable as an indicator of mate quality.[9]

Experiments have been conducted to investigate whether perfectly symmetrical faces (which were digitally manipulated to be that way) and the original image would be more attractive. 64 subjects (32 male, and 32 female) 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 as a lifetime mate (1=not at all appealing, 10=very appealing)

Symmetry ratings were always kept last to keep symmetry from being a factor in the ratings of attractiveness and mate appeal.
The image to the left demonstrates examples of the face images that vary from low, normal, high, and perfect symmetry.
This experiment found that facial symmetry is attractive, but symmetry is not the only way to determine facial attractiveness. If it were, then the perfectly symmetrical faces would all have been rated equally attractive, but they were not.[9]

There is a lot of discussion about beauty and attractiveness, with a popular phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" or "beauty is only skin deep." However, many studies across human cultures and non-human species, attractiveness has been based on similar physical traits. In non-humans, colour of fur, feathers, and body size have been noted to be relevant in choosing a mate.[5] A large amount of research done on non-humans involving mating and attractiveness investigate symmetry. Attention to body size, colour, and symmetry are noted to be involved in the choosing of a mate in animals. In evolutionary theory, this would be responding to cues to high mate value (mates which hold traits that would be best to carry on to the next generation), and that next generation would have a stronger sense of these cues. [6]

An evolutionary view of attractiveness could propose that males who prefer women past reproductive age would not be able to carry on such genes (due to difficulty in conceiving and delivering a pregnancy at a later age), and so we find a preference for youthful mates in males now. [6]

Sensitivity to the proportions of faces that vary in human likeness


This 2008 study conducted by Green, MacDorman, Ho, & Vasudevan, used computer game characters and androids to show that beauty perception is influenced by innate human preferences. The subjects, who ranged in age, gender, country of birth, and country of residence, completed four tasks. The first required participants to adjust faces in videos until they looked “best”. This tested “sensitivity and tolerance to facial proportions”. Tasks 2 and 3 followed up on task 1. Task 4 had participants viewing images of faces of real people, mechanical-looking robots, human-like androids, and 2D and 3D characters and rating the figures as “female,” creepy,” “sexy,” “ugly,” etc. Results from this study showed showed there is a strong correlation between human-likeness and attractiveness. The researchers also concluded that the subjects shared an acceptable range of facial proportions. (Green, MacDorman, Ho, & Vasudevan, 2008) [2]

An interesting concept explored in this article is a concept called the "uncanny valley." This video gives an explanation of this intriguing phenomenon, which is the creepy area between cute and realistic that animators try to avoid when creating games and movies, because of this innate aversion to disproportionate and/or non-humanlike faces.

This study proves that our perception of beautiful faces is a built-in bottom up process.


Beautycheck - Causes and Consequences of Human Facial Attractiveness

Beauty Check was a project conducted in the Universities of Regensburg and Rostock (Germany) in 2011. They have designed a website with the results, explaining how and why we find certain faces beautiful. Their results give further support to the "attractiveness is averageness" hypothesis (for example, see Hoss & Langlois, 2003); however they found additional characteristics such as skin-texture, and "baby-face" attributes that were more important in beauty perception. They go on to show social stereotypes associated with beauty. Positive personality traits such as intelligent, creative, and exciting were attributed to faces perceived as more attractive. (Gruendl, 2011) [3] While this study does not clearly give an answer to the question of top-down vs bottom-up processing for beauty perception, it may be of interest as it is a comment on how visual and social preferences for beautiful faces develop in humans and the significant social consequences.

Aesthetics and Beauty

Aesthetics – A set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty

“…Consider the interesting case in which happiness in life is predominantly sought in the enjoyment of beauty, wherever beauty presents itself to our senses and our judgement—the beauty of human forms and gestures, of natural objects and landscapes and of artistic and even scientific creations. This aesthetic attitude to the goal of life offers little protection against the threat of suffering, but it can compensate for a great deal. The enjoyment of beauty has a peculiar, mildly intoxication quality of feeling. Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it. The science of aesthetics investigatges the conditionsunder which things are felt as beautiful, but it has been unable to give any explanation of the nature and origin of beauty, and, as usually happens, lack of success is concealed beneath a flood of resounding and empty words. Psychoanalysis, unfortunately, has carecely anything to say about beauty either. All that seems certain is its derivation from the field of sexual feeling. The love of beauty seems a perfect example of an impusle inhibited in its aim. 'Beauty' and 'attraction' are originally attributes of the sexual object.”
Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey
Norton, 1961, pp. 29-30

Judgment Aesthetics focuses on the sentimental values in which the taste of an individual defines these values. (1).

Aesthetics is described in different variations of ways which deepens the idea of beauty itself since the introduction of it in the early 1800s. The physical embodiment of our human bodies allows us to encounter the world in a particular idea due to our senses given to us. Aesthetics focuses on how we use our sententious ability (seeing, smelling, looking, touching and hearing) to define or shapes the beauty of our surrounding or what we think to be beautiful. Aesthetics is not only limited to being sensory, but also given by experience and cognition which deepens into the biological process (2).

Judgment of Taste
Immanuel Kant (German Philosopher 1724 – 1804) defines Judgment of Taste as subjective feelings with universal validity. The study of this is based on the feeling of satisfaction and displeasure.

Emotion – A complex pattern of changes, including physiological arousal, feelings, cognitive processes, and behavioral reactions, made in response to a situation perceived to be personally significant.

Personal aesthetic experiences of individual show their judgment of taste in different categories and also their nature of liking and disliking interest. Everyone has a different idea of what beauty means to them and what they like or dislike; what they may think has beauty or ugliness. Sharing or thought of judgment is shared to express all different sorts of reasons; whether it is to feel comfortable or to win a bet. But, when one makes a judgment of personal interest, to them, the opposite judgment would seem incorrect. For example, if person X were to say they like cheese on their pizza and person Y were to say they dislike cheese on their pizza; the judgment of taste preference is different.

When we mention of something being aesthetically pleasing or we say is the emotion of being beautiful, we are implying that it is of satisfaction, pleasure or delight of mind.

Experiments for beauty and aesthetics

Experiments for beauty and aesthetics


2. Green, R. D., MacDorman, K. F., Ho, CC., & Vasudevan, S. (2008). Sensitivity to the proportions of faces that vary in human likeness. Computers in Human Behavior24.5, 2456-2474. doi:
3. Gruendl, M. (2011). Beautycheck - Causes and Consequences of Human Facial Attractiveness. Retrieved from
4. Hoss, R. A. & Langlois, J. H. (2003). Infants prefer attractive faces. The development of face processing in infancy and early childhood: Current perspectives, 27-38. doi:
5. Jankowiak, W., Gray, P. B., & Hattman, K. (2008). Globalizing evolution: Female choice, nationality, and perception of sexual beauty in china. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science, 42(3), 248-269. doi:
6. Little, A. C., & Perrett, D. I. (2002). Putting beauty back in the eye of the beholder. The Psychologist, 15(1), 28-32. Retrieved from
8. Principe, C. P. & Langlois, J. H. (2012). Shifting the Prototype: Experience with Faces Influences Affective and Attractiveness Preferences. Social Cognition 30.1, 109-120. doi:
9. 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
10. Stevenson, A. (2010). Oxford Reference. In Oxford Dictionary of English (3 ed.). Retrieved April 6, 2014, from
11. Clarke; Laura Hurdgriffen; Meridith (2007). Literature Review. Becoming and being gendered through the body: older women, their mothers and body image, 1-3. Retrieved from
12. United States, Dove. (2013, April 4). Dove Real Beauty Sketches Ad [Video file]. Retrieved from
13. Saad, G. (2010, April 6). Homo Consumericus. Beauty: Culture-Specific or Universally Defined?. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License