A prolific author and expert in the field of facial perception, visual science and emotions. She attempts to determine what defines beauty and examine whether pulchritudinous people really do lead more charmed lives.
by Erin Walsh
Botticelli’s depiction of Venus di Milo, the goddess of love and beauty, with luminous skin and flowing flaxen tresses, her visage painted with a contented calm. Lovely mythological lady Helen of Troy, who was, by all accounts, so comely that she was described as having “a face that could launch a thousand ships.”
These classic beauties along with radiant Hollywood starlets, debonair leading men, and glamorous cover girls, have long captivated the public. In Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies Professor Susan Petry’s special topics course, Advanced Topics in Perception: Conceptualizing Faces, students explore the major topics in facial cognition, such as recognition, attractiveness, emotional expression, cues to deception and the evolution of portraiture, among other areas. We sat down with Dr. Petry, an expert in the field of facial perception and a sculptor, to determine what defines beauty and examine whether pulchritudinous people really do lead more charmed lives. Following are some excerpts:
Why is the area of facial perception so hot right now?
Well, I think for several reasons. Technology frequently drives academics. The idea that the development of not only computers, but of morphing software, where people could take two images and combine them in some way, was really a driving force (in) applying that to faces. The development of more sophisticated brain imaging techniques led to the discovery of a separate area in the brain devoted to perception of faces. Then the third reason, I think, is the importance of recognition systems in crime (investigations), with terrorism being such a major thing.
How did you choose to focus on faces?
It was, in part, because I was looking for a field that was related to perception that might be a possible interest to clinical students, and also that was something that could be done with minimal equipment, technology and space. That was one reason, but in addition to that is that I’ve always been interested in art, and that’s kind of one of my closet activities. So, I’ve been teaching courses on creativity and perception and art, and one of the major things in perception art, and one the of things I always did, was portraiture.
What types of faces are perceived as being the most attractive?
Faces that are perceived as being the most attractive are ones which are symmetric. They are ones which have a pleasing and normal spatial relationship among (and) between the features. They are ones which indicate good health, so for example, clear skin, full lips for women, wide eyes. Ones which tend to be prototypic, what it means to be human and healthy. For that matter, young, too. If you take an average face, and you compare female faces to the average, and male faces to the average, you can define a set of differences, relative to the average, that this is what it means to be female or male. Faces which are somewhat more female or more male are judged to be more attractive.
When did the whole concept of beauty come into being?
My guess is that there was a concept of beauty as early as there was a differentiation between people or objects. Certainly, indications of beauty, of the way to compose a human figure, the best way, are found not only in ancient Greek work, but I guess using a somewhat different metric, in some of the Egyptian work, too. If you look at Egyptian sculpture for example, it is quite stylized. That would imply to me that there are standards that should be upheld, and what are they going to be standards of? Beauty is as good a word as any.
As the media embraces a more global view of beauty, how has this golden mean of beauty changed?
I think there has been probably a greater acceptance of diversity more recently. We know in terms of face perception, our ability to recognize different people… depends in part on what my past experience is, and the extent to which I have had a diverse past experience in terms of different faces, it will make it more easy for me to recognize people of different ethnicities.
How does our view of beauty affect various aspects of our lives?
For example, anecdotal evidence suggests that people who are perceived as being more attractive get better jobs, higher pay.
The literature suggests that people who are judged as more attractive—there is a positive halo all the way through—they are judged to be more honest, they are judged to be more intelligent, and more open, a whole lot of things. Mothers of attractive babies will spend more time with their babies than mothers of unattractive babies. That’s sad, so early on. There is a well-known halo-effect on teachers. I had a student do an honors thesis on that last year. The teacher spends more time with the (attractive) students and gives (them) higher grades, and, to some extent, (it will be) a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, if you’ve got somebody who thinks you’re stupid, you stop trying after a little while. There is something in social psychology called the fundamental attribution error, where it’s assumed the cause of the behavior for the attractive child, if it’s a negative behavior, that it’s situational; ‘He was tired that day.’ Wheras if it is an unattractive child, it’s character logical; ‘I knew I couldn’t trust that kid.’ Those differences are shown very early on. It buys you a lot to be attractive.
What are the downsides of making these types of judgements?
Well, if in fact there is no relationship or very minimal correlation between beauty and things like intelligence and moral values, then making these judgments is a form of prejudice, of bias. So, the downsides are the same as you would find with any kind of bias. And, even worse, I would think, is the extent to which it is assumed that someone who is attractive and successful is successful by virtue of a superficial characteristic like attractiveness.
This piece appeared in the Adelphi University Magazine Fall 2008 edition.
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