Saturday, January 30, 2016

Life experiences determine who we find attractive, not genetics!

Recent Study

We all know the saying 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder', and the fact that there are a whole lot of strange-looking people out there happily loved up would suggest that it is true. But scientists have now performed the biggest test so far, analyzing the preferences of more than 35,000 people, and have shown that we really do all have a unique 'type'.

In fact, the study showed that even identical twins - who share nearly 100 percent of their DNA - are not attracted to the same people, suggesting that it is our experiences, rather than our genes, determine whether we find someone hot or not.

"We estimate that an individual's aesthetic preferences for faces agree about 50 percent, and disagree about 50 percent, with others," lead researchers of the project, Laura Germine from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, and Jeremy Wilmer of Wellesley College, explain in a press release.

"This fits with the common intuition that on the one hand, fashion models can make a fortune with their good looks, while on the other hand, friends can endlessly debate about who is attractive and who is not," they add.

Of course, there are some things that people seem to find pretty much universally pleasant to look at, and researchers believe these things may be coded into our genes. For example, studies have shown that most people prefer faces that are symmetric and also features that suggest fertility, such as large breasts and hips on women.

But after analyzing the facial preferences of more than 35,000 volunteers, the researchers found that, beyond that, people have very different ideas about what makes someone hot.

To work out what was driving those differences, the team asked 547 pairs of identical twins and 214 pairs of non-identical twins to rate the attractiveness of 200 different faces.

If the non-identical twins had vastly different preferences compared to the identical twins, it would suggest that genes were shaping their 'type'. But this isn't what they found.

Instead, it was experiences that seemed to be what shape the "eye of the beholder". And those experiences are highly specific to each individual.

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"The types of environments that are important are not those that are shared by those who grow up in the same family, but are much more subtle and individual, potentially including things such as one's unique, highly personal experiences with friends or peers, as well as social and popular media," said Germine.

So in other words, it is not your family, where you grew up, or how much money your parents make that shape who you are attracted to, it is things like the magazines you read, the social interactions you've had, and even your first boyfriend or girlfriend, that determine these preferences.

The research has been published in Current Biology, and "provides a novel window into the evolution and architecture of the social brain", according to the authors.

They are now interested in finding out more about which personal experiences in particular influence our preferences, and how these experiences influence other things, like our feelings about art and pets.

For now, take comfort knowing that even if your crush is not that into you, someone out there will have had the perfect combination of experiences to find you adorable.

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Universal Beauty Signs

While we are saying that the beauty is not a universal quality, there are some common grounds, which were claimed to be preferred by most people. There are even certain evolutionary reasons why beauty might be timeless. Certain biological features might signal health, fitness, and fertility – the makings of good mate – and we should find these features sexually attractive. Yet the more biologists and psychologists have looked, the harder it has been to find a purely biological basis for beauty.

Consider the apparently received wisdom that we prefer symmetrical, evenly balanced features. The scientific explanation seems sound: disease and stress during childhood could subtly influence the body’s development, creating an “instability” that leads one side to grow slightly differently to the other. A slightly lopsided face should therefore be a sign of physical weakness – making them less appealing as the parent of your children.

The problem had been that many of the previous experiments had asked just a small number of subjects to rate different faces – making it easier for fluke results to jump out. When Stefan Van Dongen at the University of Antwerp conflated the results in a large meta-analysis, he found the effect almost disappears when you consider enough people. In fact, facial symmetry may not even say much about your health. Although previous research had found some evidence for the idea, a 2014 study took 3D scans of nearly 5,000 teenagers and quizzed them about their medical history. It found that those with the most symmetrical features had been no fitter than the others.

Well, Biologists had also hypothesized that we prefer faces that epitomize the ‘manliness’ or ‘femininity’ of their gender: the broad jaw of Jon Hamm for men; the delicate features of Miranda Kerr for women. Again, the rationale was sound: bone structure reflects the sex hormones pumping through our blood, so they could advertise a woman’s fertility and traits like dominance in men – important considerations when picking a partner.

Yet most studies had only examined Western societies. When Isabel Scott at Brunel University, and colleagues, decided to cast their net wider – across communities in Asia, Africa, South America and Russia, they found a variety of preferences. In fact, it was only in the most urbanized regions that they found the strong attraction to more masculine men and more feminine women; in the smaller, more remote communities, many women actually preferred the more “feminine” looking men.

The same goes for body shape. In the West, people may prize longer legs in women while preferring less “lanky men”, yet the nomadic Himba society in Namibia have the opposite tastes. Even Western preferences seem to have shifted over time; Botticelli’s Venus – once the Western ideal of beauty – has shorter legs, compared to her body, than the desired shape for models today.) And although an hourglass figure in women, and men with broad, V-shaped shoulders tapering at the waist, are admired in most places, the ideal extremes depend on the society.

Perhaps our choice of mate needs to be flexible, so we can choose the best partner based on our current circumstances. “For example, in cultures where starvation is a real risk, preferences for heavier weight in partners is expected because those individuals are most resistant to food shortages,” says Anthony Little at the University of Stirling – and indeed, this does seem to be the case. By the same token, someone who faces higher risk of illness will be more primed to value the signs that signal good health – like facial symmetry – compared to those who are relatively safe from infection. When dominance is valued, meanwhile, women may also prefer men with squarer chins – and higher testosterone. “We’ve found, for example, that exposure to cues of male-male competition, such as seeing men fight each other, increases women’s preferences for masculine male faces,” he says.

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Shaping the Tastes

Although our concepts of beauty may seem ethereal and timeless, they may just be the direct product of our immediate circumstances. It is also worth noting the effect of conformity: study after study has found that if you hear or see that someone else is attracted to someone, you are more likely to fancy them yourself. In this way, tastes for certain types of people could spread throughout a population, shaping our norms for what we consider beautiful. “The benefit of this is that you don't have to learn everything for yourself and can benefit from the experience of others,” Little says. “What is interesting in modern society is that social media can mean this learning could be on a worldwide scale.”

Consider this recent experiment from Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore. The researchers used a dating website that allowed users to rate random people. After they had made up their mind, some users were shown the average score from other visitors. Although there was no “right” or “wrong” answers, the users soon learnt which types were proving more popular, and started to score other faces along similar lines. Soon, everyone’s taste had converged – their concept of beauty had shifted, just by using the website. This is despite the fact that it was completely anonymous – there was no benefit to going with the status quo.

It is easy to imagine how this kind of herd behavior has benefited certain celebrities. On a smaller scale, you can achieve similar effects simply by being seen with people who you could potentially couple off with, such as members of the opposite sex. Others will assume that you are already a hit, and follow suit.

Our attraction is also shaped by familiarity: the more people see you with a certain appearance, the more attractive it can appear. In a time when cosmetic surgery is becoming the norm, this offers an important lesson. Instead of changing your unusual looks to suit the fashions of the time, you could instead use your looks to change the fashion.

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