The Golden Ratio and the beauty of average faces

I usually write about the newest research in the field of attractiveness psychology, but today I’m going to tackle one of the oldest theories there is: the Golden Ratio.

It was the ancient Greeks who first noticed that if you proportion buildings or works of art according to the Golden Ratio—so the length of a section is 1.62 times its width—it is more aesthetically pleasing. Since then, the Golden Ratio has served artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Salvador Dali.

In the past few decades, some researchers have tried to find out whether the ratio can also explain human facial attractiveness, but so far the evidence hasn’t stacked up.

Now in a new paper published in the journal Vision Research, scientists have tried to find out if there really is such a thing as a Golden Ratio of beauty. In a series of experiments, Pamela Pallett of UC San Diego and colleagues showed people a set of female faces in which the internal proportions of the face were varied. If you want to picture what the images looked like, imagine a face in which the eyes and mouth are moved closer together or further apart. The researchers also did the same thing with the eyes, moving them in towards the nose, or out towards the ears.

Pallett had her volunteers say which of the faces they found most attractive. When she analysed the results she found that the most attractive eye-to-mouth ratio was .36, and the most attractive eye to eye ratio was .46. These numbers might not mean much, but it turns out that they’re the average proportions. If we took hundreds of women, measured their ratios, and worked out the averages, they would be pretty close to these numbers.

Average faces are likely to be attractive because they’re a sign of good genes. They signal genetic diversity and healthiness, which we should look for in a partner if we want to have healthy kids.

This research also suggests that these new golden ratios aren’t set — as we move from population to population, or to a different point in time, the average ratios will change, resetting what we think of as the most attractive face.

Good news for people considering rhinoplasty — a more painfree way of improving your profile might be to change your postcode.

Pallett, P. M., Link, S., & Lee, K. (2010). New “golden” ratios for facial beauty. Vision Research, 50(2), 149–154. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the February 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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