Attraction and Beauty: Not Only in the Eye of the Beholder

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Attraction and Beauty: Not Only in the Eye of the Beholder

Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed. (Blaise Pascal, Pensées)

I always say beauty is only sin deep. (Saki/H.H. Munro, Reginald’s Choir Treat)

It used to be said of attractiveness that it is difficult to explain but easy to recognize. We have been attempting to define what makes a person physically attractive for generations. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that beauty was a matter of having the right mathematical proportions. Yet for the philosopher David Hume, beauty was ’no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty’. The idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder — that different people have different ideas about beauty and therefore do not agree about who is, and who is not, beautiful — was for a long while the dominant view in much of philosophy and art.

In contrast to the subjective view of beauty, however, psychologists have argued that there may be objectively-defined criteria of attractiveness. A different idea that is currently very popular in both lay and scientific circles is that beauty is a reliable index of health and fertility. This is the evolutionary psychological view of human attractiveness. This approach is now dominant and there have been countless studies over the past 30 years that have attempted to document the actual and physical measures of what people think of as attractive.

In the evolutionary psychological view of human history, the central mating problem for men was inseminating fertile females, while the central problem for women was obtaining ’good genes’ from high-quality males and perhaps some parental provisioning and protection. For evolutionary psychologists, these remain the central problems for men and women today. Under the rubric of sexual strategies, they have postulated integrated sets of behaviours that organize and guide an individual’s reproductive effort.

Women, it is argued, choose males based on their high status and ability to provide resources for their offspring. As a result, men strive to acquire more resources than other men in order to attract women. Women developed preferences for various cues in men that signal either possession, or the likelihood of acquiring, resources.

On the other hand, among the features that men look for are youth and physical appearance. According to this idea, human ancestors needed to assess women for their youth and health, but they could only base this on such cues as clear skin, ’baby-like’ facial features, a particular body shape or other characteristics that indicated good health.

This evolutionary psychological model helps to make sense of many of the empirical findings from experimental social psychology. For example, men from a range of cultures have been shown to favour youthful-looking women. If such preferences are the result of inherited mechanisms, then men would seem to be ’wired up’ to choose reproductive partners whose youthful fertility offers the best chance of passing on their genes.

Thus the evolutionary psychologists have been able to predict, on the basis of the above (and other) variables, the extent to which a person is rated as attractive and why. Though they have explored various individual difference factors such as social class, culture, personality and age with respect to the evaluation of beauty, they have shown clear markers of what males and females describe as attractive or beautiful.


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Kanazawa, S., & Reyniers, D. J. (2009). The role of height in the sex difference in intelligence. American Journal of Psychology, 122 (4), 527—36.

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