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Back of the head by Tomer Arazy licensed under CC CY-NC-SA 2.0

Beautiful from Behind

Is it possible to judge a person’s attractiveness from the back of their head?

It’s not so peculiar a question as it might sound. After all, it’s not as if everybody in our social environment obligingly turns to face us so we can assess their beauty. Unless we’re Tom Cruise auditioning a roomful of potential new wives. It’s more likely that we spot people from different angles, maybe from the side or possibly even from behind, and decide that they’re attractive enough to warrant further inspection.

He asked them to turn around and face the wall, before taking a second photograph of the back of their heads

Now, put like that, it might sound a bit stalkerish. But, really, it’s no more weird than seeing someone with an appealing face and then making an effort to get to know more about their personality and interests. In other words, it’s probably a common, largely unconscious process by which we identify people we’d like to learn more about, and to disregard those who don’t pass muster.

Keiichi Yonemura of the University of Tokyo tested this theory in a paper published a couple of weeks ago. First he took passport style photographs of 120 young adults. Then he asked them to turn around and face the wall, before taking a second photograph of the back of their heads. Yonemura showed these photographs to 70 volunteers, who rated their attractiveness. Half of the volunteers viewed the full set of facial photographs first, and the full set of back-view photographs second. The remainder saw the back-view images before the set of facial images. All the photos were rated for attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 7, 7 being very attractive.

Chances are that the back of your head is better looking than the front

Yonemura found that the female photographs tended to receive higher ratings than the male photographs. Nothing unusual there; we see that sort of result all the time. But he also discovered that photographs taken from the back were rated as significantly more attractive than those taken from the front. Yes, that’s right: chances are that the back of your head is better looking than the front. The effect was stronger when men rated female photographs, than when women were doing the rating or when men were being rated.

Why might this be? Well, one possibility is that men are primed to express greater interest in potential partners than women are. The logic goes that men have more to gain by keeping an eye out for attractive women, since men’s reproductive success is tied more closely to the number of partners they can secure. If a man has only limited information about a woman’s attractiveness, say if he can only see the back of her head, it might pay him to assume she’s a looker. That way he’ll be more motivated to get a closer look.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be less interested in multiple partners. They are also more likely to find that proactive men seek out their attentions — they don’t necessarily need to go to all the work of estimating attractiveness from limited information. Anyway, once men acquire more information — such as a front on view of a person’s face — chances are they will be disappointed, because not everybody can live up to the image that men create for themselves in their own minds.

Another possibility is that women’s hair styles and colours tend to vary more than men’s do, meaning that women may be disinclined to pay much attention to the back of men’s heads. A sea of short back and sides is unlikely to get anyone excited.

Yonemura, K., Ono, F., & Watanabe, K. (2013). Back view of beauty: a bias in attractiveness judgment. Perception, 42(1), 95–102. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the March 2013 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Written by

Evolutionary psychologist. Studies human attraction and mate choice. More at RobertBurriss.com

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