Psychology in the News

May 3, 2010

How the brain reacts to attractiveness

Filed under: brain wiring, culture, evolution, social relations, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — intro2psych @ 8:49 pm

By 105 Student

Attractive Face Scale by manitou2121

Composite images, used to evaluate what features raters found attractive

When you see an attractive person walking down the street you may turn your head to look at him or her. When you see everyone else, they may just be blurs as you pass by on the street. What is the reason you look at the attractive person? Why do humans find some people attractive and others not? The answer lies within the brain.

New research being done by psychologist Nancy Etcoff shows that when human beings see an attractive person the reward centers in the brain fire. Not only this, but humans can differentiate between levels of attractiveness by how heavily reward circuits fire in the brain when different pictures of attractive people are shown to them.   Could the reward centers fire so much that one could become addicted to the beauty of one person…perhaps accounting for love? Yes, many other things factor into the development of a relationship, but stimulation of reward centers in the brain surely help the process. As Psychologist John R. Buri has shown, initial attraction to a person is just a powerful wave of neurotransmitters sent our way.  This essentially creates a brain flooding of many different rewards, including Epinephrine, Dopamine, Phenyl ethylamine and Endorphins. Such powerful rewards for such surface level beauty can suggest many things, including an explanation for the commonly held belief that attractive people are more successful in life. This may possibly be because of the physiological response to seeing an attractive face, and with time and repeated exposure, an addiction, or obsession with a certain person. One would be more likely for instance to hire a person they found to be more attractive because they are rewarded chemically in the brain for being around that person.

Does this mean that universally brains can recognize certain features as attractive and that human brains will reward us for seeing beautiful people? Scientist Gad Saad, seems to suggest so in his article discussing the universal beauty metrics he has argued exist in society.  He argues that although there are some different standards of beauty among different cultures, there are universal beauty metrics in our world that exist everywhere, including a universal preference for symmetric faces and clear skin.

This advantage plays to all sorts of parts of life. Human beings want to see attractive people in their daily lives, on their television screens, and on their magazine covers, in order to receive physiological stimulation from seeing physical beauty.  The brain seems to suggest that beauty is important enough to receive a chemical stimulus to force us to surround ourselves with beautiful people. The chemicals released when one is happy are the same as when we see beauty or when we are addicted to drugs. This seems to point to an advantage that beautiful people have. Although many other factors contribute to success in society it seems like the saying it pays to beautiful may after all be very true.


Buri, J. R. (2010, February 16). Love bytes: Insights on our deepest desire, Psychology Today,

Diller, V. &  Marano, H. E.  (1997, September 1). Physical attractiveness survey, Psychology Today,

Aharon, I.,  Etcoff,  N., Ariely, D., Chabris, C.F., O’Connor, E. &  Breiter, H.C.,  (2001). Beautiful faces have variable reward value: fMRI and behavioral evidence, PubMed,

Saad, G.  (2010, April 6). Beauty: Culture-specific or universally defined? Psychology Today,


  1. The media driven world that we are part of today has only furthered the perception that it pays to be beautiful. From this perception has risen the multi million-dollar industry of cosmetic surgery. The perception that being stereotypically beautiful will lead you to be more successful in the work place as well as the social scene has people flocking to get cosmetic surgery. Studies such as Springer’s in 2007 have shown that people prefer mates that are symmetrical. This is a reason why people are getting “imperfections” in there bodies fixed. Other studies have shown that in the past people interacted with smaller groups of people in which, they generally knew the non-physical, or personality traits, of the other people. Leading to attraction being less about physical appearance, because of the balance of personality and physical attraction. In today’s world, with the vast amount of communication and social networks, appearance has become more important, which also leads to people correct “imperfections” so that they can be better suited for mating. This also is present in the work place where often the interview is the first contact with the employer and thus superficial factors play a much larger role. This has all lead to people feeling the need to conform their bodies to social norms in the hopes of bettering their social and financial status.

    Comment by Christopher Toffoli — May 3, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

  2. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
    Perhaps this phrase should be changed to, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.” I often believe that people pick and choose beauty based on cultural norms and societal definitions of attractiveness. From a scientific point of view, it’s interesting that our brains are actually hard-wired to react to beauty.

    Consequently, men and women view attractiveness in different ways. In a study done by Wake Forest University, it was found that men who were asked to rate the attractiveness of females generally agreed on who was attractive or not. In contrast, females were not as universal with their choices; some rated men exceptionally high while others found the same men unattractive. The study suggested that men attributed attractiveness to physical features in women, whereas women were more willing to look at the “complete picture.”

    Wake Forest University (2009, June 27). Rating Attractiveness: Consensus Among Men, Not Women, Study Finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from /releases/2009/06/090626153511.htm

    Comment by Tracy B — May 4, 2010 @ 1:00 am

  3. This article did not surprise me that much. You see all over the world that attractive people are portrayed as “better.” They are all over billboards, magazines, the red carpet, everywhere.
    The study we went over in class (Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977), seems to back up this article. In the study men who were looking at more attractive photos thought they were going to have friendlier conversations. This occurred because somewhere in some peoples mind there is the thought that there is a correlation between attractiveness & friendliness, which in real life doesn’t exist.
    Although there are reward centers in the brain that stimulate more when shown attractive things, it’s sad how that can take over when it comes down to situations where a decision is required, that can be altered because of attractiveness.

    Comment by lindsay Haggerty — May 4, 2010 @ 8:59 am

  4. It’s interesting to think that there the possibility of becoming “addicted” to something beautiful exists because of the rewarding neurotransmitters that are released when we see something we find attractive. But it is unfortunate to note that having that attractiveness might give someone an unfair advantage in work or otherwise. While it seems that many studies report symmetry in the face as the mark of attractiveness, another study done at Texas A&M found that body movement, body cues, and the way one carries themselves are also factors in perceived attractiveness. They study found that the way people walked influenced how attractive others perceived them to be; in addition to the other more frequently noted qualities. While “fixing” the symmetry of your face might require more drastic measures, like cosmetic surgery, perhaps what this study is saying is that a little more “sway” in the hips when a woman walks and little more “swagger” in the shoulders when a man walks will increase a person’s perceived attractiveness.

    Texas A&M University (2007, May 24). Clues To Mysteries Of Physical Attractiveness Revealed. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 4, 2010, from

    Comment by Daniele Selby — May 4, 2010 @ 9:11 am

  5. Attractiveness tends to have a halo effect, as studied by Edward L. Thorndike in 1920. It showed that people in general assume attractive people have better traits in general. This is seen in Harold Kelley’s implicit personality theory, where people’s first impressions of a person will last more than other things that they learn about them later. Thus, attractive people, giving off good first impressions, will generally have an advantage in that people assume that they have good qualities. It is interesting to think of something as subjective to us as attractiveness in terms of biology. Having basic attractive qualities seems to have hidden advantages in it that go beyond simply having an easier time getting a job.

    Comment by Nikki Aldeborgh — May 4, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

  6. There are several points I find compelling about this topic. First, it is fascinating that while the brain seems to enjoy symmetry, a perfectly symmetrical face is undesirable. Those of us who have tried the mirror effect in our laptop photo booths know – there is something alien about symmetry.

    Next, Daniele brought up a great point about body language. All the magazines say that confidence is most attractive, and that seems to be true in the study and in the real world. Subtle aspects of a confident gait make that person seem more approachable and therefore more attractive.

    Lastly, I would love to know why the brain reacts the way it does to “beauty.” What evolutionary purpose does a good face serve? It couldn’t be about mating, because wide birthing hips and other features that might be useful in procreation are not part of the universal beauty ideals. What use is it to us to be rewarded by symmetry and clear skin? And why do different people have varying tastes?

    Comment by Lane Brettschneider — May 4, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

  7. I didn’t really find this study to be surprising, as we have gone over what makes an attractive person, but what did surprise me was the psychological benefits an attractive person has. I would have thought that hiring a pretty person over a plain one in an interview would be bias or unfair, which may be true, but the fact that there are actual biological and psychological reasons that fuel this.
    Also the concept of universal beauty is interesting, considering that all cultures have specific perceptions of whats beautiful and what behaviors and outfits highlight that beauty, yet the basics are still there for everyone and the superficial preferences do not actually matter.

    Comment by patty walton — May 5, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  8. As was shown by the study we looked at in class(Self-Fulfilling Stereotypes Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977), a person’s attractiveness is a factor in first interactions. What interests me, though, is that in this study, the third party (who had no visual of the female in question) also found the “attractive” women to be more attractive. The natural response of the women to the attitudes of their phone partners shows that the beautiful women are more likely to be friendly and open than the “less attractive” women of the study. Thus, physical beauty not only fires the neurotransmitters stated above, but it also can lead to the beautiful women actually being more pleasant.

    Comment by Rebecca Shulbank-Smith — May 7, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

  9. Even though the concept of universal beauty is amazingly interesting, I’m not at all surprised by this finding. As much as we love to deny it, human brains are much the same on many levels. For example, as a race we are universally predispositioned to learn language. We all have the capability to learn and recognize syllables and put them together past just basic learning or mirroring. Even when we are vocally incapable, we find similar ways to communicate showing links between all humans. Furthermore, humans are also connected through emotion. All humans, even in the most remote corners of the world, seem able to recognize the basic emotions like anger and happiness. This just seems like more data showing that we are amazingly similar and not as diverse as we’d wish.

    Comment by Gary Clauss — May 16, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

  10. I also think that universal beauty is an interesting concept, but I’m not sure those few traits are enough to make up one. Obvious facial deformities or acne could be easily interpreted as signs of ill health, and therefore it would be evolutionarilty advatageous to avoid them. That seems a litte obvious, to me.

    I wonder how many employers are aware of their potential bias for hiring more attractive people. As Rebecca pointed out, societal expectations could lead to self-fulfilling prophecies of social skill, but that isn’t the most relevent attribute for all jobs. It reminds me of a 30 Rock episode where the main character dates a doctor who doesnt’ know the Heimlich mmaneuver, but people still act like he’s a good doctor because he’s so attractive.

    Comment by Heather K — May 18, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

  11. Wow, that is fascinating.

    Comment by Paula — November 26, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

  12. Androgens! The average face, shown above, is quite comparable to the most highly rated attractive face. Human brains tend to comprehend symmetry easily; it is predictable, we are built to recognize patterns, and on a symmetrical face, our eyes do not startle us by honing in on any glaring imperfections. There seems is an Oprah Scientist hard at work determining the GOLDEN RATIO OF THE FACE! Are you excited?

    Here are the supposed requirements:
    1. The height of the head is 1.6 times the width.
    2. The face divides equally into thirds: From the hairline to the midpoint between the eyes, the midpoint between the eyes to the bottom of the nose, and the bottom of the nose to the chin.
    3. The ear’s length equals that of the nose; the eyes are spaced apart as wide as they each measure.

    In other words, these yummy numbers are the most attractive. So before you go on measuring your face, remember that even though Brad Pitt apparently has the most proportionate face in all of known pop culture, he is just AVERAGE! Even though I could gawk at his proportions all day…

    Comment by Chelsea S.Y. — January 26, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

  13. I believe that this post definitely supports the theory that there is something in our DNA that leads us to find an idol and follow them.

    Comment by Janelle — February 7, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

  14. I found this post extremely compelling. It was interesting to learn what happens to the brain when a person is physically attracted to another. I would be interested to know where “attraction” from personality comes into play. Unfortunately, it is not surprising to me, that “more-attractive” people are believed to be more successful.

    I read an article from USA today where they discussed a study that was analyzed by Professor Todd Kashdan at George Mason University where he proposed people to, “Think about it as a gateway to getting what you want from life — job interviews, first dates, making those initial impressions, persuading and influencing other people. Attractiveness gives that slight edge. They’re getting the benefit of the doubt at first sight, and unattractive people aren’t.” I found this conclusion disappointing however more or less correct. Especially in the marketing field being attractive is definitely a quality companies look for when hiring new employees. The more attractive a person is the more likely the customer is to listen and actually buy something.

    The article also addresses the idea plastic surgery. It suggests that the shape of your face—the symmetry and how everything hangs together—which cannot be altered by plastic surgery, determines beauty.

    Reference: “” Your Life: Health, Fitness, Food & Self – Web. 12 Feb. 2012. .

    Comment by Cecilia Rosenbaum — February 12, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

  15. This makes me wonder if we eventually stop finding a person attractive over time because we get used to their appearance. I find that often it’s hard to decide whether or not people you encounter on a regular basis are objectively “attractive.” Is it possible that we adapt to the neurotransmitters when we are around the same attractive person a lot?

    Comment by Nicole Massad — February 13, 2012 @ 11:19 am

  16. I wonder if Etcoff’s research on stimulation of the reward center when seeing an attractive individual has any bearing on the findings of the Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid (1977) study we learned about in class today. Supposing that merely seeing an image of an attractive person stimulates some sort of reward sensation in the brain, could the male participants in the Snyder et al study have been predisposed towards initiating a friendly conversation due to increased endorphin levels?

    Comment by Matt Allan — April 17, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  17. This blog post on how a person and their brain perceives attractiveness made me think of the Snyder, Tanke, and Berscheid (1977) Self-fufilling Stereotypes experiment. This experiment proved that men who believe a woman to be more attractive will think she is more friendly as well, mostly due to how friendly the men act towards her in the first place. I think this blog post as well as the experiment prove how unfair it is for people who are found “un-attractive” in our society because they will be perceived not only seem less attractive than their competitors but not as kind and personable too. This gives attractive people an unfair advantage in everything from job-interviewers, college admissions interviews, and even in finding a life partner, it also seems similar to the “halo effect”
    I also partially disagree with the “universal attractiveness theory” of this experiment. Scientist Gad Saad, seems to suggest that a “universal beauty metric exists in society,” even everywhere in the world. However, he only acknowledges that their is some variability across cultures, while I believe that who is viewed as “beautiful” can dramatically change from country to county. What one culture considers beautiful, another culture may frown upon. For instance, in most Western cultures skinny and large busted women are considered desirable for their beauty. However, this cultural definition of beauty, even in the Western culture, was not true until quite recently. In other cultures, however, skinny is looked down upon. This makes me wonder if a man from a western culture went to Africa, would he eventually adapt to how they view attractiveness, or is his brain already completely hard-wired and brain-washed to only see “skinny” as attractive.

    Comment by Leigh Anne Baldwin — April 27, 2012 @ 7:56 am

  18. It can be interpreted that beauty is closely connected to an appropriate/worthy candidate for reproductive pairing (things we see as attractive being exterior translations of biological/genetic traits).

    Knowing this, it’s easy to see why identifying beauty (brain prompting reward when seeing beauty) would be beneficial. Our brain is a great ice breaker.

    Comment by CJ Logan — May 1, 2012 @ 3:50 am

  19. The first thought that comes to mind after reading this article is what this means about confidence/self-esteem and our perception of our own self appearance. Does our self-esteem and perception of self have to do with a chemical attraction to ourselves? This would concur with the evidence from the experiment, however, the opposing evidence would look at people who are most universally described as “attractive” and question why these people have low-self esteems in relation to their appearances and how people and how some people who are most universally deemed “unattractive”, with for example, poor skin and asymmetric faces or undesirable cheekbone placement ( are able to cherish their appearance and/or have this chemical attraction to it/ or averse to it.
    Also, how is it, given this information that we are chemically attracted to “attractive” people, that we can change our view on a persons attractiveness without them changing their appearance? For example, you might initially think someone is attractive and even if they don’t change their look after seeing them repeatedly you may change your opinion. Can you get “used” to a person’s attractiveness and eventually become “Numb” to its chemical appeal?

    Comment by Lucia — May 6, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

  20. I liked this post a lot, and think the topic and studies were very interesting, but I think trying to include an explanation for love is going a step too far. While attractiveness is certainly a part of love, there are definitely other factors, ones that are probably not even scientific. A lot of times scientists try to quantify everything and without getting too abstract, a lot of things can not be explained scientifically, at least not yet. This post works well without the “perhaps accounting for love?” and i think so does study in this field. Maybe some things are not supposed to be turned into a formula.

    Comment by Michael Haugbro — May 6, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

  21. This article reminded me of the case study we observed in class with the phone observer and fake photos and folders. It makes sense that your brain fires more when seeing an attractive person. Such behavior gives attractive people a leg up in the work force when going for interviews and applying for jobs. They already pleased their interviewer by the dopamine firing.

    Comment by Andrew Nicol — May 14, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  22. I agree with Andrew Nicol above. This post does remind me of the study mentioned in class. While it does make sense that our brains fire more in the presence of or at the suggestion of an attractive person, it’s still rather disheartening that we are literally wired to be a bit shallow in this regard.

    Comment by Taylor Nunley — December 17, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

  23. It’s very interesting that attractiveness has such an effect on the mind. I know that symmetry is one of the ways that animals judge their potential mates, hoping to increase their fitness by passing down good to their offspring, but I would have not thought humans to work like this.
    I wonder though, if our brains are wired to react this way to “beauty” then why are there individuals that are attracted to deformities. Would there be a difference in their reward path ways as oppose to someone who follows the universal beauty metrics.

    Comment by 105 student — March 8, 2013 @ 8:12 am

  24. Very interesting! I have also read in some places that symmetrical faces are considered more universally attractive. I find the psychology behind attraction quite fascinating. I once heard of an experiment done where heterosexual males and females were each given a number, 1-10, on their forehead so they could not see it but other participants could. They were then told to pair up with the highest number they could. This showed that, if those numbers represented the attractive scale, that people normally couple up others within a one or two number range distance (ex: a 6 and a 7). There was more to this, where they had these people dress in the same body suits with hair in caps as to not to be seen, however I cannot remember accurately what happened.

    Comment by Psych 105 Student — March 8, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

  25. This article is, in a way, rather disturbing. Many people say that our society is terrible in its obsession with beauty and shallow personal attributes. People talk about what we perceive as beautiful being a function of our messed-up society. However, this article would point to our obsession with beauty as being a product of our own nervous system. While this takes the pressure off our society, it makes any change almost impossible, as what is wired to happen in our brains is not likely to change without powerful medications. On the other hand this gives some credence to the feeling of love at first sight. Perhaps this overwhelming rush of neurotransmitters is interpreted as love and this is the feeling so widely fantasized about in romantic movies and novels.

    Comment by Ian Kowalok — April 23, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

  26. These findings seem to me like they are to be expected. The fact that we like looking at attractive people, even get giddy over it in some situations suggests a likely hormonal change. I don’t think though that this necessarily means there is something in our genes that is giving us a definition of attractiveness. It could just easily be that our perceptions of attractiveness are shaped by society through classical conditioning. This too could result in dopamine and epinephrine spikes. I think what perpetuates ideas of attractiveness must be our labeling of the feelings associated with the hormonal increases, i.e. at first we respond because we see the face defined as beautiful but later we call that face beautiful because we respond to it.

    Comment by Treigh Manhertz — May 11, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

  27. This article is certainly thought-provoking, but I must say that I find it to be teetering precariously on edge of some serious biological essentialism. It always makes me uncomfortable when societal implications and influences go mostly unexamined when issues of psychology are being discussed. I therefore would like to push back a little against the proposition that certain aesthetic characteristics are universally appealing because of our shared biological processing of them as opposed our shared globalized exposure via the mass media to light-skinned Western features, and the elite, disproportionately skinny people who possess them.

    I also am slightly confused by the author’s declaration that “one would be more likely for instance to hire a person they found to be more attractive because they are rewarded chemically in the brain for being around that person.” The quote gives the impression that this is phenomenon that happens to people on an equal basis, i.e. that attractiveness is regarded as equally important for any given person. This is just not true. Male privilege is phenomenon that grants men validity and value, particularly in a masculinist workplace, irrespective of their aesthetic appeal. Given the incontrovertibly massive influence media has on conditioning our perceptions, I think it behooves us to think more critically about why women’s appearances and images (such as those displayed in this article) are subject to such scrutiny (hint: it may have something to do with capitalist corporate drive and the fact that 70% of purchasing power is held by women).

    In any case, this was an interesting read.

    Comment by anon — May 20, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

  28. I found this article to be particularly interesting to read, especially since pinpointing what characteristics constitute physical beauty is, I always imagined, something that simply couldn’t be done, because I am a firm believer that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. However, I can understand the “universal preference” for smooth, clear skin and symmetric faces; it’s reinforced through the models and actresses that I see in various magazines, movies, and television shows. This is true for America and Japan, two very different cultures that I am exposed to as a Japanese-American. Japan and America may have their differences when it comes to aesthetics, but I can see two clear similarities in the Japanese and American models: clear, beautiful skin devoid of moles and freckles, and symmetric faces, usually consisting of large eyes, a small nose, and a heart-shaped face. But while it may be more rewarding to see a conventionally pretty face, it doesn’t always guarantee having an easier time in life. However, I do agree with the comment above that because of the influence of media, and more often than not, growing up in a patriarchal society, women are criticized much more harshly on their physical appearance than men.

    Comment by Reina — November 6, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

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