Is Beauty More Than Skin Deep?

The Science of Physical Attraction



Transcipt of lecture given by Professor Raj Persaud FRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist, at the FACE national conference at the Royal College of Physicians, Regents Park, London, UK, in July 2010. The transcript contains interaction between the lecturer and the audience.

IS BEAUTY MORE  THAN SKIN DEEP? DR Raj Persaud FRCPsych Consultant Psychiatrist



Speaker key


PE       Persaud          

FV       Female Voice



PE       I’m very interested in the way people’s appearance fits in with their overall sense of well-being. I worked for four years as a Lecturer, and later as an Honorary Senior Lecturer with Professor Gerald Russell at The Institute of Psychiatry, working in his eating disorders clinic. Professor Russell discovered bulimia nervosa and coined the term. And interesting to note that bulimia nervosa was discovered by him as recently as 1979. A lot of people think of it as a very ancient and old disorder, but actually it tells us something, perhaps, about the rise of eating disorders in the modern generation that it was first described in ’79 by Professor Russell.


A couple of myths I want to dispel in this lecture. One is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We often hear that phrase, that notion that what someone finds attractive in another person is very variable, that people’s appearance is a bit like wine: it’s a matter of taste; or like art: it’s a matter of personal opinion; when in fact, the science… and we’re going to talk about this briefly later on… indicates there’s a massive convergence in terms of what people consider physically attractive. And there’s a lot of interesting scientific theory as to why that is.


The other key myth I want to dispel is the notion that’s particularly prevalent in an audience like this, people who are bright, well-educated: the notion that appearance is somehow superficial. As parents we like to tell our children, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. And yes, that is true; but also what counts is, I’m afraid to tell you, what’s on the outside. And appearance has a massive impact on people’s outcomes in life.


For example, recent research indicates that less physically attractive people earn less money in the work place. And in fact the people who did this study called it a plainness tax – a tax on not being very attractive! This was because the researchers found, on average, less physically attractive people earned 5 to 10% less across various professions than more physically attractive people.


A puzzling finding, given that obviously if we were discussing actors and actresses or models it would make sense that appearance determined how much you earned. But this fascinating finding was across a variety of professions. One reason the researchers found why being more physically attractive ends up letting people earn more money, was actually more attractive people did better at school and did better at University. Quite a perplexing finding. Perhaps physical appearance mediates our relationships – teachers prefer to teach attractive people and perhaps the more beautiful find it easier to collaborate with others. But there has also been the finding that, contrary to the ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype, the more physically attractive are actually more intelligent, on average, as well.


The argument here is that over generations natural selection and evolutionary theory would predict that as intelligence and beauty, if party genetic and if they both partly have positive survival value, they will come to co-exist together.


This theory is based on an interesting idea that’s arrived recently in Psychology and Psychiatry, which is what is based on the question over what’s driving our judgments on appearance? And the idea of what’s driving our judgments on appearance is that appearance is a marker for some fundamental aspects of our biology and psychology. And in order to make sense of that we have to go back to Evolutionary Theory.


Now, many of you will know about Evolutionary Theory and about the idea that evolution says what determines which genes get passed onto future generations is survival of the fittest. So, for example, if you’re very good at throwing a spear hundreds of thousands of years ago, you would go out and you would bring lots of meat back to the camp; and if throwing a spear was partly genetically determined, then throwing a spear would be a trait that would get selected and passed on to future generations. So survival of the fittest is a very important idea. And again, because we live in a modern society where it doesn’t look as though throwing a spear has much evolutionary advantage any more, Evolutionary Theory and its relationship to modern-day life seems to become baffling.


But interesting to note that if we look at modern sports and how much money elite athletes make and how attractive they’re found by the opposite sex… that the characteristics that determine the elite athlete are very close to the characteristics that require you to throw a spear very well!


Most sports, for example, require aiming at a target. Why do we find the ability to aim and hit a target so impressive, and why do we find it so pleasurable to see a goal being scored? Evolutionary Theory says it actually makes biological sense that we’re drawn to these traits because hundreds of thousands of years ago actually they were very powerful in determining future generations and fitness of genes.


Maybe there’s an overall modern overlay, but beneath it all Evolutionary Theory is saying we’ve still got Neanderthal type brains working in a Neanderthal type way. Neanderthal in the sense of the evolutionary date our brains evolved.


It’s useful to be aware of this theoretical background when we’re thinking about so called selected traits, like beauty. Because even if you were very good at throwing a spear, you still weren’t going to pass on your ‘throwing-spear’ genes to future generations, if you couldn’t get anyone to mate with you.


So another very interesting part of Evolutionary Theory is called ‘sexual selection’. One of the things that would get selected is the ability to get the opposite sex to mate with you because that meant you’re more likely to pass on your genes to future generations. And there were two key tasks we had to overcome. First of all we had to get the opposite sex to choose us, and a lot of Evolutionary Theory is about the idea that physical appearance is being driven by this evolutionary imperative to get people to choose us.


But not only did we want to get people to choose us, but we wanted to mingle our genes with the genes of people who were choosing us and we wanted to make sure that we selected people who had good genes. So when we mingled our genes with their genes and produced children, our children had a better chance of passing on their genes to future generations. The Selfish Gene theory in operation.


Therefore it follows, not only was the task that we needed to get picked, but we were going to be fussy and select those who had fit genes. This would improve our own genes’ chances of future survival.


Physical appearance, the argument goes, is a marker for genetic fitness. And we may think, oh, ‘I found him rather witty at the party, that’s why I’m drawn to him’; but actually there’s an evolutionary and biological prerogative operating at an unconscious level; and a level at which we often find uncomfortable to consider but the research data is quite clear that predicting fit genes and all the markers of it is enormously powerful predictive of what we’re going to find attractive.


So wit or GSOH (Good Sense of Humour as is the acronym used in lonely hearts columns) is found very attractive by women in men – perhaps wit is a proxy for intelligence and it’s the intelligence that has positive survival value if you hang out with such a person, plus if they mingle their high IQ genes with yours in your children. You think you are drawn to the wit, but there are underlying processes involved operating below conscious awareness.


One example of this notion that appearance is a marker for fundamental traits at a deeper biological and psychological level is (and there are many studies I could quote) but one of my favourite is a study done by Alan Mazzur and Ulrich Muehler. Alan Mazzur is a sociologist based at Syracuse University in the US.


They performed this fascinating study where they took the final year graduation photographs of people graduating from an elite military academy in the US called the West Point Military Academy. And then they took the final year photographs in 1950 and they rated these photographs on a measure called facial dominance, and how dominant a man’s face is is a marker for how high his testosterone levels are. And markers of facial dominance, which relate to high testosterone blood levels, are things like prominent eyebrow ridges, deep-set eyes, a prominent chin, and a square jaw.


So if you want to get an image of who that kind of face looks like, think about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold Schwarzenegger has got an archetypal facially dominant face. And if Arnold Schwarzenegger walks into the room, a kind of floodgate of testosterone has opened up and you’ll find yourself swimming against the tide.


Now, they followed up these West Point Military people after they’d got this marker for facial dominance, and they’d found it in a photograph, up to 1989; from 1950 to 1989, when most of their careers were now over and these people had practically retired. And the remarkable finding was that facial dominance in your photograph in 1950 predicted powerfully how successful your career was, how far up you’d got in the army years after leaving West Point Military Academy, which is a really startling finding.


Now, there’s some controversy as to how we interpret this finding. Is it the case that because these people looked more dominant they got more submission from people around them, and that was what contributed to their career; or was it the high testosterone, the higher aggressiveness, the higher assertiveness, the higher competitiveness that people with higher testosterone tend to have as marked by these facial features that was carrying them through in their career?


But whatever it was, there is a clue there that appearance is not superficial; that appearance is a marker for something much more fundamental. And there’s a slew of research evidence that testosterone levels are markers of something very important. People with high testosterone, men in particular, tend to take more risks. They tend to be more assertive, more dominant, more aggressive, more competitive. And there are features in our body that reveal high testosterone; for example, the lower your voice.


Now again, a more recent fascinating study took some video of men dancing and asked women which of these men they found most attractive and also asked them to predict which of these men were stronger physically. And strength was measured by hand-grip strength. And lo and behold, the finding was that the men who were dancing who were found more attractive by the women during the video clip had stronger hand-grip strength and higher testosterone levels.


And again, it’s interesting, isn’t it, when people go on a date why do they tend to go dancing? We just take it for granted, but maybe what’s going on at an unconscious level is seeing how well people dance or whether they can actually get up on the dance floor; at an unconscious level, you are rating their genetic fitness. And it’s very interesting, isn’t it, how courting all around the world, whatever culture, is linked to going out dancing. So Evolutionary Theory makes a prediction, an explanation for that.


If you are a man, the ratio between your index finger and your ring finger is a marker of how high your testosterone levels are. And generally speaking, the closer these two fingers are to being the same length, the higher your testosterone levels. And you’ll notice that women have a much bigger difference generally speaking between their index finger and their ring finger. And again, if you look at this ratio between index finger and ring finger, which is a marker of testosterone, there is a very strong link between that ratio in men… and all the men now are looking at their fingers… and how attractive you are found by the opposite sex. Again, an indicator that something fundamental is going on.


I’ll pick another piece of data. When you look at overall body shape in men, the torso shape, the shape of their chest, there is a particular V-shape shape that is found more attractive by women. So slightly more prominent pectoral muscles or a prominent chest and a smaller waist. Why is that found more attractive by women? Well, what do you use your pectoral muscles up here in your chest for? Not much in modern-day society; but generally speaking these are the muscles you use whenever you throw a punch. So prominent muscles here means you’re better at throwing a punch. So basically what women are unconsciously attracted to is men who are good in a brawl. Why? Well again, it doesn’t make much sense in modern-day society, but hundreds of thousands of years ago, when a favourite Saturday afternoon activity of the young men in your tribe was a bit of raping and pillaging, then it makes sense to pick a male partner who was able to protect you from these marauding young upstarts.


So again, Evolutionary Theory makes a prediction and it has an explanation. But it’s not just about testosterone. Again, a slew of research evidence finds that one way of coding what we find attractive in bodies and facial appearance is symmetry. The more symmetrical someone’s face is and the more symmetrical their body, the more attractive we find it. And of course we’re not able to observe the symmetry directly, it’s operating at an unconscious level. And symmetry is shown to be correlated with all sorts of biological parameters; for example, how ill you were as a child, how effective your immunological system is now. So again, at an unconscious level we’re being drawn to fit genes.


So women have had it easy up until now from this research. So we’re going to go to women and look at the research evidence there. And again, the research operationalises measures of beauty by trying to extract a mathematical number. And one classic number in the research is waist-hip ratio. And basically the smaller your waist in ratio to hips, the more curvaceous your body. And lo and behold, we find that waist-hip ratio correlates with male ratings of attractiveness in terms of what they find attractive in women, and also correlates very strongly with fertility. And there is a magic number, which is the best waist-hip ratio to have in terms of attractiveness, the opposite sex, and that number is 0.7. And 0.7 is the magic number that predicts maximum fertility.


Another magic number is body mass index. Waist-hip ratio gives us an idea about body fat distribution; body mass index gives us an idea of how much body fat you’re carrying. Now, everyone knows that the body mass index that’s rated as being healthy is between 20 and 25. But which body mass index number is found most attractive by men? And that number is 19, which is actually slightly lower than what is said to be the lower limit of biological health. What is the body mass index on average of most supermodels? It’s 19.


I want to conclude with one final point. Why do women wear blusher? Anyone know what the Evolutionary Theory is about that?


FV       To look sexually aroused?


PE       To look sexually aroused? Very brave answer this early in the morning. Well basically… lots of people come up with different theories… but the dye, ochre, that’s used for blusher has been found in archaeological digs dating back hundreds of thousands of years. So women have been using blusher way back into prehistory. So there’s something interesting and fundamental going on.


You may not realise this, but when women are ovulating, that part of the menstrual cycle where they’re ovulating, ie, when they’re at their most fertile, you get capillary dilation in your skin and women’s skin is slightly redder at the time of ovulation. Again, not so much that you would notice, necessarily, but the interesting Evolutionary Theory is that’s why they’re wearing blusher because at an unconscious level men tend to find women wearing blusher more attractive. Why do they? Not because men know, aha, she’s ovulating. It’s because at an unconscious level it’s been wired into our genes to find that attractive and you’re more likely to propagate your genes.


So it’s interesting that women have chosen to wear blusher because it could be a confusion strategy, we’re going to confuse the men as to who’s actually ovulating and who isn’t; or it’s a deception strategy, I’m going to deceive you into thinking I’m ovulating when I’m not really, as a way of attracting you.


So because we’re out of time, one final point I want to make is that one of the things you’re doing when you improve people’s appearance is you improve their confidence. And sure, being more attractive is very helpful in society in terms of impression management, in terms of the fact people are more likely to want to work with you, or liaise with you. But fundamentally what you’re doing is you’re improving people’s self-confidence. And because they’re more confident, they’re more assertive, they go out and get more of what’s available in life. So when you improve people’s appearance, you’re actually doing one of the most fundamental things you can do to improve people’s well-being. Thank you.    


Dr Raj Persaud is Consultant Psychiatrist working in Private Practice at 117a Harley St and is Emeritus Visiting Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry. He is author of ‘Simply Irresistible: The Psychology of Seduction’ published by Bantam Press and available from – a top ten best-selling book marshalling all the most recent scientific evidence on beauty and attraction.