Adolescence and attraction

We often think of ourselves as having a ‘type’: an attraction to different people who share similar characteristics, whether that means bad boys or girls next door or blondes or brunettes. And we also think of that type as something that’s consistent and doesn’t change over time.

But even if these preferences are static once we’re adults, they must have developed from somewhere because almost every child of a certain age has an instinctive revulsion for their peers of the opposite sex. So how do we come to find certain traits attractive, and at what point during our physical and mental development do these changes occur?

Tamsin Saxton of the University of Edinburgh has done much of the best work in this area, and has recently published a new paper on age, puberty and the attractiveness judgements of adolescents. She created pairs of faces that were identical in all respects except for three properties: masculinity, symmetry and averageness.

Previous research has shown that symmetric and average faces are more attractive. By the way, when we talk of facial averageness, we don’t mean someone who looks plain, we mean that the features and face shape of that person are close to the population mean, with an average sized nose, average sized ears, and eyes that are the average distance apart. Feminine faced women and masculine faced men are also attractive. All these traits are thought to be appealing because they’re associated with physical health or genetic diversity, which are traits it makes sense to pass on to our offspring.

Saxton also made voice pairs that differed in pitch, because previous research has shown that men prefer higher pitched voices and women prefer a lower pitch.

Saxton presented the stimuli to 72 adolescents in the Czech Republic and found that, like adults, they preferred faces that were average and symmetric. Both male and female adolescents preferred faces that were feminine over faces that were masculine. This could have been because the masculine faces appeared more mature and were therefore less attractive to the adolescent girls, who preferred males whose age was similar to their own. There was no preference for a deeper or a higher voice, so clearly voice preferences emerge later than face preferences.

Another interesting finding was that, when the adolescents were grouped according to their pubertal development stage, those who were further into puberty expressed a stronger preference for facial symmetry. This effect was irrespective of age, so it is unlikely to be the result of older children having seen more faces over their relatively longer lives. Instead, the ability to judge a person’s attractiveness based on their facial symmetry seems to be a product of physical maturity. Younger children can accurately judge a person’s attractiveness, so they’re probably using other cues such as complexion.

Saxton, T. K., Kohoutova, D., Roberts, S. C., Jones, B. C., DeBruine, L. M., & Havlíček, J. (2010). Age, puberty and attractiveness judgments in adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(8), 857–862. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the September & October 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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