Facial beauty and attractiveness are not universally perceived. Instead, according to new research, it is culture and individual preferences that shape the diverse spectrum of what we think is facially attractive.

A new study, led by researchers at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology and published today in Current Biology, modelled individual preferences for attractive faces in two cultures, Western European and East Asian. The researchers found – contrary to current assumptions that there is a perceived universal facial beauty – that different cultures and individual preferences defined what is considered to be attractive in both cultural groups.

Facial attractiveness confers considerable advantages in social interactions, with preferences likely reflecting psychobiological mechanisms shaped by natural selection.

In order to measure and understand perceived facial attractiveness, researchers used computers to generate a broad range of young female faces with naturally varying shapes and complexions, and from a mix of ethnicities. They then asked two matched groups of young male participants, one group of 40 Western European males and another group of 40 East Asian males, to evaluate each face on attractiveness. Using the participants’ answers, the researchers were then able to model the facial features that drive perceptions of attractiveness in individuals, and further what features generally drive attractiveness within each cultural group.

The findings refute theories of universal beauty, which suggest attractiveness tends towards an average face, and instead show that Western and Eastern cultures, along with individual preferences, drive which faces people perceive to be attractive. Moreover, the researchers also showed that the perceived attractive features from one culture are then used by members of that culture to judge other-ethnicity faces on their attractiveness.

Professor Philippe Schyns, author of the study, said: “Here, we demonstrate that Western Europeans and East Asians evaluate facial beauty using culture-specific features, contradicting theories of universality. The results show the diversity of beauty preferences within and across cultures.

“Our results have direct theoretical and methodological impact for representing diversity in social perception, and for the design of culturally and ethnically sensitive socially interactive digital agents.”

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