PetaPixel

What Averaged Face Photographs Reveal About Human Beauty

womanface

A while back, PetaPixel posted some features about image averaging and faces. Richard Prince created a composite portrait of the 57 faces of girlfriends on Seinfeld. This led to Pat David exploring the averaging of faces with Martin Schoeller’s portraits of celebrities.

I’ve long been interested in image averaging as well; as a measure of central tendency, I like that image averaging can highlight similarities and differences across an array of seemingly equivalent images.

I first came across image averaging in college, about three years ago, and more recently while studying psychology at degree level. Initially, my interest was spurred by Jason Salavon and Krzysztof Pruszkowski. Salavon averaged images from particular ‘sets’. For example, ‘Kids with Santa’ is an average of 100 pictures of which children pose with Santa.

santa

Pruszkowski, much earlier, used modified cameras in a process called ‘photosynthesis’ to create such averages. You can see this in ‘60 Passagers de 2e Classe du Metro’.

ghost

What interests me, is that averaging can be used as a comparative tool. It can illustrate both the formulaic and inconsistent – as you can see in Salavon and Pruskowski’s images. I found, recently, that averaging is used extensively in face research in the psychological field.

Francis Galton used averaging, as early as 1878, to discern links between physical appearance and psychological traits. Aside from his eugenicist motive, he did find that average faces tended to be deemed more attractive. Later capitulations showed that 32 averaged faces were considered more attractive than 2.

Face averageness and it’s relation to physical attractiveness has been explained in terms of genetic heterozygosity. Average features, such as faces, may point to overall genetic health and resistance to parasites.

Subsequent research has shown attractive individuals are seen as more trustworthy and having lower levels of stress. I’m saying this, because it’s possible that attractiveness is not arbitrary and may provide cues we aren’t aware of. If you were to take a Darwinian perspective, you could assume that attractive faces are a result of mating success and that typically attractive faces follow a certain pattern.

A ‘model’ of such nature does exist. The Marquardt mask devised by Stephen Marquardt uses the golden ratio of 1.618 to display the archetypal attractive face for males and females. Although it seems to be the gimmick that would appear as a cut-out in low-end gossip magazines, it does seem to hold some truth. You can see this with Angelina Jolie below.

angelina

This all leads me to my little ‘experiment’ using averaging. Essentially, I wanted to see if ‘attractive’ faces conformed to a sort of beautiful framework and if ‘unattractive’ faces did not.

To do this, I had to gather my sources of attractive and unattractive faces for both males and females. To avoid the beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-holder debate, I took names of celebrities that appeared most across opinion polls in terms of most and least attractive. I’m not saying that Maxim’s hot 100 is an entirely reputable source, but having cross-referenced the names across various other lists and polls; at least I can say the faces used are not based on my opinion.

As per the finding that 32 faces are seen as more attractive; I used this as the threshold for the amount of faces to average. The selection of images to use was based on my own criteria: facing forward, eyes looking into the camera, limited facial expression, decent size and decent colouration.

For each ‘category’ (Male and female, attractive and unattractive) I aligned and resized the images, until the internal features of the face (eyes, nose, lips and chin) were as aligned as feasibly possible. Then they were averaged.

These are the averaged images in sets of females and males. They’re comparisons of attractive (left) and unattractive (right) averages:

womanface

manface

Here are those same attractive and unattractive faces with a Marquardt mask overlay:

overlay1

overlay2

What’s interesting is that attractive male and female faces seem to have similar structures and similarities. When aligning the images in Photoshop; I could see that faces which appeared completely different actually have similar basic proportions. You can see this in the averages and in relation to conformity with the Marquardt mask.

The most interesting aspect, to me, is the incoherence seen in the ‘unattractive’ averages. Attractive faces seem to conform to a basic attractive structure, with little variance of internal features. Unattractive faces have more varying features – this would explain why the unattractive averages are less coherent.

I tried to make this little exploration as objective as possible, which is difficult when judging attraction can be seen as a subjective process. But, it is interesting to see that attractive faces follow a particular pattern (according to the opinions of the polls I used). Maybe it is the case?

Maybe pure physical attraction to faces has conventions; that is, without factoring in socialization, culture, personality and individual desires. But since we are rarely separated from those factors; I couldn’t draw a definite conclusion.


About the author: Bill Lytton is a photography enthusiast and psychology student at Goldsmiths College in London. Visit his Flickr page here.


 
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  • Ingemar Smith

    This just great. The technological revival of eugenics.

  • http://twitter.com/billylytton Bill E. Lytton

    May venture into dystopian novels soon.

  • just some person

    I find the face on the left more attractive because it’s less smudgey.

  • Andrea Hines

    It looks like the ” unattractive” picture is an older version of the ” attractive” version. Could this be our humanistic biology to find a younger mate to propel the species ? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say…

  • http://amerkhalid.com/ Amer

    Looks like bigger people on the right. Now I wonder what it would look like if they used people in same weight range as on left.

  • Rob Nuuja

    It would be interesting to track this over time in the US using the same technique.

  • Gabriel

    Did you use natural photographs? Because things like makeup, retouching and so on won’t represent the real world. In fact, many retouchers uses the Marquardt mask to enhance their subjects.

  • Chris Pickrell

    I’m curious how weight factors into this. Considering, at least in America, weight is tied to attractiveness. And without getting into the whole “big is beautiful” argument, overweight people do tend to be regarded as less attractive (look up articles on how many celebrities lost weight, and are considered attractive all the sudden).

    Anyway, if fit/thin/in shape/etc attractive people all fit in a similar weight class, it stands to reason anyone outside that norm is much more of the extreme. Factor in excessively skinny people, and it kind of skews your results. Because with much wider samples of varying weights, you will have much more diversity and abstract averageness. While you’re attractive people, all fitting the “healthy” weight, will be much more homogeneous.

    I would be interested in seeing an “average” of the “unattractive” people, that fit into, or have the same weight variables, as the attractive people. Because, at least in our society and media, weight is less of a variable. While in unattractive people, it is a much broader and random variable.

  • AM

    Yes, I was about to say this. If you mix unattractive fat people with unattractive thin people, of course the dispersion will be high.

  • Julia

    You just need to look into social psychological research on attractiveness to find the answer as to why the less attractive averaged picture is less uniform: attractiveness is a function of normality, of averageness, in the form of symmetrie. so, the more pictures of completely normal individuals you merge, the more attractive it will become. meaning that if you only chose attractive pictures in the first place, they are ALREADY closer to average, resulting in a more uniform composite picture. the “unattractive” original pictures are perceived as less attractive, because, you guessed it, they have more extreme, deviating features and are less symmetric. no surprise then that the resulting merged picture is less uniform and more blurry.

  • http://twitter.com/billylytton Bill E. Lytton

    Yeah, I did think about factoring weight and age into this. In the attractive groups, all the people were around the same weight and about the same age. Although there were more older males, than there were females. I decided not to do it like that because I wanted the comparison between the averages to show, to an extent, how much is considered unattractive.

    As a couple people have said above, the face on the right looks bigger; the weights, ages, as well as spatial relationships between the features played a big part. For instance, Jay Leno has this huge head, but all his features are quite central – and that might be deemed unattractive.

    I hoped the dispersion would be greater in the unattractive average (although I didn’t know if it would before averaging), because I was hoping to highlight how strict/narrow attractiveness seems to be. If that makes sense?

    It’d be cool to expand this into a full-on project on attraction looking at the various factoring variables.

  • Snapper

    this work is very interesting but I’m surprised it makes no mention of Japanese photographer Ken Kitano who has been exhibiting this type of work since 2006.

  • Rob Nuuja

    I understand how you picked the attractive faces, but how did you pick the unattractive faces? Where they also celebrities, who perhaps in their younger years may have been on the most attractive list?

  • Rob Nuuja

    The most interesting thing in this sort of research is how much of our preference for beauty is Nature vs. Nurture? How does culture influence standards of beauty and why?

  • http://blog.patdavid.net/ Pat David

    Not long ago I had done another blend of all of the Miss America 2012 contestants that yielded some interesting results…

  • Bill E. Lytton

    I picked the unattractive faces based on obscure polls from sh**ty areas of the internet, The annoying thing, was that a good amount of the people on the ‘unattractive’ lists, I didn’t think were unattractive, but I was trying to base it on others opinions.

    It’s definitely interesting how culture can shape perceptions of beauty.

  • http://shadowfoot.com/footprints Brian (Shadowfoot)

    Does this mean we could create a mathematical model of attractiveness, based on how much distortion a face has from the Marquardt Mask?

    Could you blend unattractive faces with the same degree of similar distortion and get a less blurry image?

  • jickay

    If faces fall into a bell curve, then most average looking faces will be a majority. Taking this into account the majority will also skew the definition of attractive towards their own likeness. Thus, average faces beget their own definition of average attractiveness. In other words, the average like themselves and there are lots of them.

  • Devocate

    I think I understand what you are saying but if it was true that would mean the majority of people would be considered attractive. Which is not true. Also you are working under the presumption that the definition of attractiveness would be skewed to resemble themselves which I also disagree with aside from the narcissism it implies that would also mean that the “unattractive” would view people who are similar looking as desirable. What happened here is that the population was divided into two samples there are two bell curves creating averages of “attractive people” one of “unattractive people”. The idea is there is an idea of objectivity to attractiveness, but the difference between the two are small.

  • jickay

    In a bell curve a relatively small number of people are actually average, but a high number, about 2/3, is close to average. So while not everyone is extremely attractive not too many deviate far from it. The “unattractive” do tend to find one another attractive for different qualities other than looks. But that doesn’t mean that most people, who aren’t too far from average, make their definition of attractive the standard.

    It’s very much like why most people like mainstream movies and music. Because it is a kind of art at the average level.

  • RonT

    This effect has been very well researched in perceptual and social psychology for at least 10 or 15 years. I remember assisting with the production of a book on the subject about a decade ago on the subject, while studying.

    The main determinate of general physical attractiveness is bilateral symmetry (dividing the face down the noseline). That’s why the ‘attractive’ faces map better and the ‘unattractive’ ones don’t produce a coherent image when averaged.
    In simplest terms bilateral symmetry is a biological measure of fitness-to-reproduce – essentially a visual indicator that the individual has good genes that will help produce good off-spring. This aspect of attractiveness doesn’t appear to be strongly culturally influenced as it is a more ‘primal’ biological measure, though cultural aspects do influence a number of other attractiveness measures.

    With regard to body size and attractiveness, that varies with cultural values but the waist to hip ratio tends to vary the least – the .68 ratio for females is most popular (and conforms to the golden ratio) but cultural factors mean the desired ratio can vary from around .59 (athletic build) up to about .75 (very curvy, ‘booty’ build). Male body shape seems measured by other factors – the shoulder to waist ratio is one.

  • Chris Pickrell

    I wasn’t criticizing you, it’s still a viable result, because one could interpret it as attractiveness is finite and very specific, and then hypothesize as to whether it’s something we are genetically led to, or is it society. But further exploration and hypothesis could try to lump specific averages, such as overweight people considered attractive compared to overweight people considered unattractive.

    You could even have some REAL fun with it, because many people who aren’t physically considered attractive are considered attractive based on their personality (like many comedians) and do something based ont hat too. As a first experiment, it was very intriguing. And as a psychology major, I am fascinated. I’m just a stickler for controls and variables ;)

    But there are numerous possibilities this could lead to down the road to look into more specific cases.

  • Chris Pickrell

    You could even do thinks like averages of sociopaths, or introverts, or the wealthy.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    There’s some debate between averageness and symmetry. A few studies have shown slight asymmetric faces are preferred over fully symmetric.

    The WHR is something that interests me as well.

  • Donald

    This is what Galton did starting in 1878, link in Bill’s article, also studies of families, particular criminal behaviours, and diseases. It’s all pdf’s on the Galton site, but some are worth struggling through (including his 1880′s photographic averaging process). The Cabinet magazine article I linked to is long reading but discusses in some detail the ambiguity of averages in Galton’s studies.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    Haha, I was gonna say. Accidental revival of eugenics.

  • Chris Pickrell

    I had to read The Republic in college :)

  • Oskar

    I wonder how it relates to the viewer, i.e. the person that voted attractive/unattractive

  • Magnolia

    Does anyone else think Lisa Lampenelli when they see the second female pic?

  • Jonathan Pearson

    beauty you find when the person still retain their baby features

  • Alexander Irvine

    Hardly, investigating the underlying constructs behind why people find other people attractive is a long shot from suggesting physical aspects determine who people are and how they behave.

  • dustin dowell

    it’s not that they’re bigger, it’s that the “unattractive” faces has less in common with other “unattractive” faces, while the “attractive” faces, all had a mostly similar structure.

  • Ingemar Smith

    When the research ventures in to who is more trustworthy based on facial features and your set is as limited as this one seems to be, you are firmly in the realm of eugenics. Europeans comprise 13% of the human population. Study up.

  • Mason

    I think you gravely misread this. “Subsequent research has shown attractive individuals are seen as more trustworthy and having lower levels of stress. I’m saying this, because it’s possible that attractiveness is not arbitrary and may provide cues we aren’t aware of.” The author is citing other research, and does not make any call to action toward eugenic practices whatsoever. The author then suggests we might, without consciously saying so to ourselves, take a Darwinian approach to mate selection. She concludes with: “Maybe pure physical attraction to faces has conventions; that is, without factoring in socialization, culture, personality and individual desires.” Or, “looks aren’t everything.”

    Read what the article is saying, not what you want to interpret from it. Read the article for what it is; do not read into it and make selective assumptions with bits and pieces of the overall study. Read up, or as you’d say, STUDY UP. I can’t stand it when people go out of their way to mince words and make negative arguments without meeting the subject at hand on its own terms.

  • Mason

    My only question is: why do the faces on the left look like a clearly identifiable person, and the faces on the right are so muddled and obscure? We’re the pics on the left cleaned up with Photoshop just to prove a point?

  • Mason

    I think you gravely misread this. “Subsequent research has shown attractive individuals are seen as more trustworthy and having lower levels of stress. I’m saying this, because it’s possible that attractiveness is not arbitrary and may provide cues we aren’t aware of.” The author is citing other research, and does not make any call to action toward eugenic practices whatsoever. The author then suggests we might, without consciously saying so to ourselves, take a Darwinian approach to mate selection. He concludes with: “Maybe pure physical attraction to faces has conventions; that is, without factoring in socialization, culture, personality and individual desires.” Or, “looks aren’t everything.”

    Read what the article is saying, not what you want to interpret from it. Read the article for what it is; do not read into it and make selective assumptions with bits and pieces of the overall study. Read up, or as you’d say, STUDY UP. I can’t stand it when people go out of their way to mince words and make negative arguments without meeting the subject at hand on its own terms.

  • Mason

    My only question is: why do the faces on the left look like a clearly identifiable person, and the faces on the right are so muddled and obscure? Were the pics on the left cleaned up with Photoshop just to prove a point?

  • Ingemar Smith

    It sounds like you agree with my assessment, the differentiating caveat you include is something I don’t even bring up, the missing call to action you point out. A call to action isn’t necessary to forward the ideas. Do you understand that?

    If I suggest that Jewish Americans are sneaky and connivingI ddon’t then have to make a call for any specific action for my analysis to feed into harmful ideas that already exist.

    The article is examining an important aspect of human nature. Why isn’t humanity represented photographically? They are all European.

  • Mason

    Your first comment assumes a “technological revival of eugenics,” and that’s hardly what it is. It’s one man’s curiosity on what is considered attractive based on common photos, not examining important aspects of human nature…. He mentioned those other ideas in passing; that’s not the point of the article. This is basically a survey. Again, you’re making it what you want it to be to feed your need to argue, instead of reading what this article actually is.

  • David Azouz

    More blurryness = less averaging. this is consistent with the thesis.

  • fmf

    I imagine with more people, the “unnattractive” side would average out to be as attractive as the “attractive” side.

  • guest

    I am black and even i can see that regardless of race beauty is universal.We all have preference that are our individual genetic code but this is subjective.But objectively unless you are blind you notice the same traits in physically attractive people regardless of race,skin,eyes,hair,bone structure etc.They do signal to us at least health but it is partly misleading on the surface a genetic advantage because people do like you automatically because of the way you look.But a goodlooking person can be socially inept,stupid even or lack character.fortunately for everybody else being a human being is more complex than just goodlooks.