Brain and Body

Is Our Definition of Beauty In Our Genes?

October 20, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

Close up of a woman's brown eye
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New research adds credibility to the old saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Why do we find certain  people more attractive than others? Is it the result of genetic preferences or the accumulation of experiences that have shaped our definition of beauty?

That’s tough a question, but recent research reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology shows that, in a study of twins, those differences of opinion on attractiveness are mostly the result of unique personal experiences.

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Some aspects of attractiveness are indeed in our genes, such as the preference for symmetrical faces, but beyond that kind of basic universal bias, people really do have their own idea of who’s hot and who’s not.

"We estimate that an individual's aesthetic preferences for faces agree about 50 percent, and disagree about 50 percent, with others," write joint leaders of this project, Laura Germine of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University and Jeremy Wilmer of Wellesley College. "This fits with the common intuition that on the one hand, fashion models can make a fortune with their good looks, while on the other hand, friends can endlessly debate about who is attractive and who is not."

While previous studies of twins and families have shown that virtually every human trait — from personality to ability to interests — is to a large degree genetically passed down from one generation to the next, the new study shows that the the saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" may be more fact than fiction since a person’s face preferences is mostly based on their experiences, not genes, according to the researchers.

"The types of environments that are important are not those that are shared by those who grow up in the same family, but are much more subtle and individual, potentially including things such as one's unique, highly personal experiences with friends or peers, as well as social and popular media," Germine says.

In other words, it's not about the school you went to, how much money your parents made, or who lived next door. Apparently, that pretty face you see has a lot more to do with experiences that are truly unique to you: the faces you've seen in the media; the unique social interactions you have every day, or perhaps even the face of your first boyfriend or girlfriend.

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