What Makes People Physically Attractive? The Science of Beauty

people rated as most attractive in surveys all share this quality

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, studies have found that certain qualities make some people more attractive than others on a universal scale. Professor Vishton explores the studies and suggests simple ways to make yourself more attractive—without plastic surgery.

Man greeting woman
Across cultures, researchers have found having a symmetrical face is rated as more attractive. Photo By MJTH / Shutterstock

Qualities of Widely Attractive People

The mere-exposure effect suggests that merely looking at a face over time makes it seem increasingly attractive. However, the fact that mere-exposure can make anyone more attractive doesn’t mean that all people are equally attractive to others.

Much research has gone into what makes certain people seem more widely attractive than others. Several universal characteristics have been identified.

Imagine recruiting a group of 50 participants and showing them a set of 100 pictures of faces. For each picture, you ask the participants to rate how attractive the faces are on a scale from one to 10, where one is unattractive and 10 is absolutely gorgeous.

When you look at all these ratings, you will naturally observe differences. Not everyone has the same opinion about what makes an individual attractive. 

However, you will most likely observe a remarkable amount of consistency. The photos that get scored as 9s by some people and maybe 9s and 10s by others will almost certainly be rated as 9s and 10s by almost everybody in the group. The same consistency will show up for the faces that receive low ratings.

Universality of Attraction

Studies like this have been conducted many times. One striking result from this kind of work is that it generalizes cross-culturally. 

That is, if you viewed pictures of a set of Japanese faces or Brazilian faces or faces from anywhere in the world—the faces you pick as most attractive will tend to be the ones that people from other parts of the planet would pick as well.

Certainly, great cultural variations exist across the world, but not so much in terms of what we humans tend to find attractive. Researchers have identified several characteristics that we seem to like. 

Symmetry is a major one. Faces are generally symmetrical, of course. We have one eye and one eyebrow on each side of the face. The left part of the face is close to being a mirror image of the right side—but not exactly.

Most people’s eyes are slightly different in size, and one will be slightly farther from the midline of the face than the other. For all of us, one side of the mouth will be ever so slightly larger than the other side. 

The closer a face is to being perfectly symmetrical, the more attractive it will tend to be rated. Humans like symmetry.

Actually, studies show evidence that even young infants like symmetry. Babies will look longer at faces that are symmetrical than asymmetrical. Symmetry has a basic quality that fits with what our brain likes to see and to be around.

Why Symmetry Is Attractive

David Buss, an American evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues have argued that symmetry demonstrates a basic instinct of reproductive fitness. On average, people with highly symmetrical features tend to live longer and be healthier and have fewer problems with fertility. It may be that, through many generations of evolution, we’ve been bred to like symmetry. 

A general tip for looking more attractive to other humans, then, is to try to be more symmetrical. While you can’t easily change the shape of your face, you can do things with haircuts, eyebrow trimming, and even careful use of makeup to create a more balanced facial appearance.

Many people refer to wanting pictures from their good side. That is, rather than looking straight at a camera, someone might turn to the side and give a three-quarters angle view of their face. 

The data suggests that we can predict which side is best. If one side of your face is slightly larger than the other, then turning that side so it’s slightly further away from the camera will produce a more symmetrical image.

It’s not so much that one side of the face is the good one, but rather that the viewpoint is the good one. You can try measuring your face, but even just a bit of experimenting will likely give you a sense of which perspective looks best. 

“Of course, if you’re very symmetrical already—firstly, lucky you,” Professor Vishton said. “Secondly, you probably won’t have much of a good side or a bad side.”

That said, symmetry is only one component of what makes a person attractive. After all, in these studies, people were only viewing photos, whereas in real life you are viewing multiple dimensions of a person including their voice, posture, style, and personality. 

Additionally, first impressions are not everything. Although a natural starting point for love is attraction, physical attraction is not a recipe for lasting love. Conversely, lasting relationships can form even in the absence of initial attraction.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.