Research has long shown that people assume beautiful strangers have a host of other attractive attributes, such as intelligence, competence and kindness. Many believe this association is born of cultural influences, said Judith Langlois, PhD, at a session sponsored by Div. 7 (Developmental) at APA's 2006 Annual Convention. However, Langlois's research suggests that the association of beauty with goodness may be acquired at a very early age through innate information-processing mechanisms.
For instance, a 1987 study by Langlois, published in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 23, No. 3, pages 363-369), showed that infants as young as two months prefer to look at pretty faces-an age when they probably haven't had the chance to pick up many cultural cues about beauty, noted Langlois, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
"Where do they get this preference?" she asked. "They have not been reading a lot of Vogue magazine."
Langlois and her colleagues have been attempting to answer that question in the two decades since that first study. Recently, they have found that attractive faces may gain some of their positive associations because they require less effort to perceive and categorize than unattractive ones.
A face, or not a face
An as-yet-unpublished study by Langlois found that toddlers and adults all can identify attractive faces as faces more quickly than ugly ones. In the study, 4-year-olds and adults viewed a series of faces on a computer screen. (The attractiveness of the faces was determined by college students in a separate study.) Some of the faces were scrambled, with the mouth appearing at the top of the face, while others appeared normally. For each one, the participant pressed a key to indicate whether the face was scrambled, and the researchers timed how long it took for them to respond.
The 4-year-olds took about half a second longer to categorize the unattractive faces than the attractive ones. The difference was smaller for adults-who were much faster than the children-but still significant.
The findings suggest that beautiful faces are not just easy on the eyes, but also easy on the brain, Langlois said. The phenomenon may lay the foundation for later, social preferences for attractive people, she noted.
"We prefer things that require less processing effort and that seem more familiar," she explained.
In a related study, Langlois and her colleagues found physiological evidence that ugly faces take more cognitive resources to perceive than pretty ones-even among babies. They placed event-related potential caps on 57 adults and 42 4-month-olds and found higher levels of brain activity as the participants gazed at unattractive faces as compared with attractive ones.
The beauty of the average
Faces that are considered beautiful may be easier to process because they are good examples of the category of "face," Langlois noted. Past research shows that what people consider beautiful is often the averaged features of a group. The same goes for other kinds of objects-including furniture. If a researcher takes several pictures of chairs, for instance, and morphs them into one composite photograph, people will rate that chair as more aesthetically pleasing than any of the individual examples.
"People like prototypes," she noted, perhaps because they are so easy to categorize.
That preference may cause people, even at a very young age, to associate an array of other positive things with a pretty face, according to research by Langlois and her colleagues.
In another as-yet-unpublished study, the researchers created a cartoon that depicts a ball attempting to climb a steep hill. In one version of the cartoon, a square comes down from the sky and helps push the ball up the hill. In a second version, the square blocks the ball's path.
Thirty 1-year-olds watched the two versions of the cartoon, which were framed with photos of an attractive and an unattractive face. When the square was helpful, the children looked at the pretty face. When the square hindered the ball, the children looked at the ugly one. The results show that young children may associate positive events with pretty people, and negative events with unattractive ones, Langlois noted.
Taken together, her research suggests that the well-established phenomenon of positive bias toward attractive people may be an unavoidable consequence of the mechanics of human cognition, Langlois said. But people can consciously work to counteract that, she noted. For instance, Langlois takes pains to ensure she treats all of her students fairly regardless of their attractiveness, by setting exam make-up policies at the beginning of the term and refusing to make exceptions for individual students.