Friday, May 30, 2014

Beautiful Asymmetry

Tom Cruise is newsworthy. Not my most surprising revelation, but hear me out. Apparently, everything he does is newsworthy. That “Tom Cruise picks his nose in public” Twitter account is still waiting for its moment to shine. Perhaps that is why, recently, the world was shocked to discover that Tom Cruise has an asymmetrical face.



And people just can't let it go (check out #9). No doubt, countless scholars in the area of psychology and other fields studying physical attractiveness and its impact, had the same reaction as me. “Yes, he does. So do I. So does the person who wrote this article. So do the people reading it.”

Asymmetry is completely natural - arguably more natural and common than the voyeurism so pervasive in our society that it clamors for more articles metaphorically dissecting our favorite celebs. Perhaps, then, what is more surprising than the realization that Tom Cruise’s face is asymmetrical, is the fact that it took this long for anyone to notice.

Researchers in the area of physical attractiveness have found, however, that symmetry is considered attractive to most human beings. So perhaps that is reason that we are shocked to discover that people we consider attractive have “flaws." Beautiful people tend to have a pretty easy lot in life: they get paid more, they are less likely to be found guilty by criminal juries (and if they are found guilty, tend to receive lighter punishments), and mothers are even more affectionate to attractive babies (read more here).

Symmetry is also a sign of good genes, because it means one is less likely to have genetic mutations. You see, symmetry is in essence averageness. In studies where researchers have composited multiple faces together, participants actually rate the composites as more attractive, because these composites average out distinctive features (a crooked nose, eyes that are slightly different sizes, etc.).

The truth is, if you scrutinize any face in isolation of other faces, you will find asymmetry. Want some evidence? Here are pictures of people perceived as being faces of beauty, and rather than just taking in the whole face, start looking at individual features and you'll see it. (Disclaimer: I am in no way saying these people are actually unattractive because of this asymmetry, just showing you it is there.)

First up, Cindy Crawford. Ignore the mole on one side (a pretty obvious instance of asymmetry) and look at the rest. Notice how her left eye (the right side looking at this picture) is slightly higher and larger than her right? This is very typical - the left side of just about anyone's face is usually larger. Also notice her face shape is not quite symmetrical; her left jaw is a bit more square.
Ryan Gosling. Notice that his left eye is lower (actually quite a bit lower) than his right. His nose is crooked, slanted a bit more to the left. And his face shape is also slightly different on his left side than his right.
One more - Marilyn Monroe. I'll admit, this one took me a little longer to see, since in most photos I found she is 1) heavily made up, 2) shot with very strategic shading over one side of her face, and 3) often shot from slightly off-center. Again, her left eye is slightly lower than her right, and the right side of her face is actually a bit narrower than her left.
I feel I've made my point that we're all asymmetrical. But just to belabor it a bit more (and in fairness to our perfectly gorgeous individuals pictured above), I give you one non-celebrity:

This was a Halloween pic, so don't worry - I don't usually have antennae. First, note that my left eye is lower than my right (not just because my head is turned), and my chin is a bit fuller on the left side. The right side of my face is also a bit narrower, just like Ms. Monroe above. Also, note that my left eyebrow has a more pronounced arch than my right. If you could see my ears, you'd probably also notice that one is lower than the other.
The truth is, even people without backgrounds in psychology or research experience have gotten the message that our faces are asymmetrical. Why do you think people talk about being photographed "from my good side"? It may be that one side is truly better than the other, but it's probably more likely having one side in the foreground is better than being photographed head-on. This technique camouflages the asymmetry. Makeup and good shading can also have a strong effect.

But I still haven't totally answered the question about why we may have missed these very human characteristics in celebrities. I'll introduce you to another offspring of this asymmetry work - more fun with averages!

Remember what I said above about composites being perceived as more attractive? Faces in a group photo are also perceived as more attractive than solo faces, for the very same reason. Our brains average across what we see in a picture. So if there are multiple faces, your brain will average across them, making them all seem more symmetrical in your mind's eye.

Where do we tend to see celebrities? When they're all glammed up attending an award show or movie premiere, they tend to be in groups. There are people in the background much of the time. On the other hand, where do we tend to see celebrities walking solo? Tabloids, where they're usually being attacked for their weight, their looks, their lack of makeup, etc. They are out of their usual context, and perhaps as a result, perceived as less attractive.

So what can we learn from this?

That I've perhaps made myself look more attractive by including my photo in the context of attractive celebrities? Maybe, though scrolling down to see my face probably means Ms. Monroe is out of the frame. Instead, you're probably averaging me with the parrot.

Or that if you want to look more attractive on dating websites, you should include a group photo instead of a picture of yourself alone? Again, maybe. I'd love to hear if that actually works (just idle curiosity; no plans on dating profiles anytime soon).

But perhaps the big thing we can learn from this is that, when we are comparing ourselves to celebrities and scrutinizing our own flawed face, that we can be assured that all faces have flaws. Flaws make us human.

Asymmetrically yours,
~Sara

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