Another just-so story bites the dust

There have been an awful lot of just-so stories postulated by EvPsych (evolutionary psychology) aficionados which mostly purport to show that there’s a strong evolutionary reason for [insert challenged norm here] and thus oh dear how sad we can’t change the way we are hard-wired, sorry. Most of them are bunkum on any reflection beyond the superficial, but they tend to form surprisingly popular and resistant tropes, because all of us like to hear a reasonable explanation which supports our preexisting prejudices.

One of the most popular EvPsych tropes has been that what is considered beauty amongst humans are the physical signs of health and agility which make for a fertile mate, combined with symmetry of face and form which is meant to indicate genetic health – no inherited deformities.

Of course, this doesn’t explain why beauty fashions have changed over history, and particularly it doesn’t explain why in the last few decades all the strongest signs of female fertility – rounded belly, curved hips and thighs – have come to signify unbeauty, apparently overriding all those eons-old evolved instincts with ease.

A new study might provide a model for how beauty is established in our brains, though:

WHEN someone is easy on the eye, it could also be because they are easy on the brain, suggests a new international study.

Scientists from universities in New Zealand and the United States analysed previous studies and conducted new research to find that attractiveness could be linked to ease of mental processing.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at previous research that found people rated images of standard-looking objects or people as more attractive than variations of these things.

They also tested people by showing them a prototype image made up of dots and geometric patterns and variations of it to see which people liked the most.

Piotr Winkielman of the University of California, San Diego, who led the research, said the less time it took to classify a pattern, the more attractive it was judged.

“We show that this preference for the prototype is a function of the prototype being particularly easy to perceive,” Mr Winkielman said.

“So the easier the better.”

Another report says that the study goes on to discuss other findings of this “beauty-in-averageness effect”, first described in the 1800s:

Other work has since demonstrated that humans have similar preferences for prototypes in a wide variety of other categories, including dogs, birds, fish, cars and even watches.

Obviously, if our preferences for all these other categories follow similiar rules for those we use to process human beauty, there’s something more going on than just reproductive considerations.

“What you like is a function of what your mind has been trained on,” Winkielman said. “A stimulus becomes attractive if it falls into the average of what you’ve seen and is therefore simple for your brain to process. In our experiments, we show that we can make an arbitrary pattern likeable just by preparing the mind to recognize it quickly.”

Obviously, if what we find most likeable is that which most corresponds to what we see most commonly, this explains shifting beauty norms admirably, and particularly how our visual media-saturated world has produced men whose grandfathers thought Marilyn Monroe was the height of fuckability, yet who today would class a Marilyn clone as a fat pig and walk right past her to chase the skinny girls.

The more extended implications that leapt to mind for me are what this means for those who live in ethnically diverse populations compared to those in ethnically homogenous enclaves. My kids go to very diverse inner-city schools, and both have a rainbow group of friends. Yet I know certain relatives and ex-neighbours who left inner city areas so their kids could go to school in one of those suburbs which is “great for raising children” (because they’ll only see people like them).

If you only see people very similiar to you in your neighborhood, your brain never gets accustomed to the appearance of other ethnicities and cannot see the beauty in them. I have certainly interacted on-line with vehement people who claim to find all black Africans ugly except for those with mixed blood and “European” features, as well as stereotypes such as Jewish noses and Asian eyes being inherently unattractive.

Perhaps all those bleeding hearts who have said that all we need to do is get out and mix with each other had it right all along:

Prototypes are easy for the brain to process as measured by the speed with which people are able to characterize what they’re looking at, the researchers suggest in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.

This study, while fascinating, is limited in its scope, certainly far too limited to use it as support for any hypothesis on racism, no matter how alluring. However, I’ll be interested to see further research on the correlation between how accustomed people are to the visual and other stimuli of other ethnicities and how racially tolerant they are.

Categories: Science, Sociology


7 replies

  1. Obviously, if our preferences for all these other categories follow similiar rules for those we use to process human beauty, there’s something more going on than just reproductive considerations.
    It’s not obvious to me. First, these aren’t two mutually exclusive hypotheses. There’s no reason why “what your brain is trained to look like” couldn’t correspond to “physical signs of health and agility which make for a fertile mate”.
    (An equally reasonable argument, with just as much speculation and just as little data, is that our brains are good at processing “average” information because that’s an indicator of repro fitness, and that the most important evolutionary drive has pushed our brains to be good at spotting repro fitness.)
    Second, this is a single study of an interesting phenomonen, and a whole ton of speculation riding on it. In contrast, there is actual data supporting the concept that “physical signs of health and agility” do in fact “make for a fertile mate” — at least in birds and in fish. Admittedly most people are not sexually attracted to birds and fish, but the simplest explanation is that it applies to humans as well.
    I’m not arguing with your extrapolations, just with the weak argument in the original study (or at least the media versions of it, since I haven’t read the origina yet).

  2. You’re right, of course, even though I didn’t actually argue that reproductive considerations and accustoming were mutually exclusive.
    I think it’s a stronger explanation for changing fashions in beauty than anything else, and certainly the fact that fashions in beauty vary and evolve is not explained in the usual evpsych rationalisation.
    There’s an elegance that would appeal to William of Ockham in the idea that we tend to like whatever we expend least mental processing on, but of course pure elegance doesn’t mean it’s true.

  3. Some of us/me are just plain shallow and like pretty twinkling things to look at.

  4. tig – it’s bloody long time back into the mists of mythmaking that any of Melbourne’s inner suburbs were “diverse”. Unless you mean diversity ways of salary packaging and of brands of 4 WDs and private schools for kids. The real diversity is out in the suburbs.
    Any way how could anyone take a bit of research that was done by a “Piotr Winkielman” seriously. That has to be a made up blogger name.

  5. Might be a bit more relevant if I were a Melburnian, FXH, but in fact I live in Sydney’s inner-west, and it’s plenty diverse around here.
    Some Sydney suburbs further out are just as diverse, but I was thinking of the insular peninsulas, North and South, as the repositories of homogeneity in Sydders.

  6. JahTeh, talking about pretty twinkling things, did you catch Sharpe’s Challenge?

  7. Not as good as Hornblower, but enjoyable and no ads.

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