By Roberta Attanasio
Why are we attracted to one face over another? What makes a face attractive and another one less attractive? “Research finds that features such as clear skin, prominent cheekbones, bright eyes, and full, red lips have been deemed attractive throughout recorded human history Research also finds a consistent preference for symmetrical and average faces. Although some argue that standards of beauty are primarily the product of Western media exposure, research suggests these standards transcend age and cultural boundaries, being demonstrated in infants, as well as in those living in societies with little exposure to Western media.”
Evolutionary theories propose that our preferences for certain facial features evolved because these features reflect physical health and, therefore, survival and reproduction. In other words, people who appear attractive to others may be better reproductive partners because they are healthier than average.
Studies suggest that immune function correlates with facial attractiveness. By fending off microbes and parasites that cause disease, a well-functioning immune system may increase the likelihood of both survival and reproductive success. However, traditionally, these studies measured immune function only indirectly, leading to mixed and inconclusive results.
Now, a study published in February 2022 suggests that facial attractiveness may provide insights into one’s immune function, particularly as it relates to one’s ability to efficiently combat (primarily) bacterial threats. For the study, researchers measured immune function directly, using a comprehensive set of laboratory-based tests, including—among others—natural killer cell function and phagocytosis. Natural killer cells are cells of the innate immune system, and play a pivotal role in defending against viruses and cancer. Phagocytosis is a process carried out by the so-called phagocytic cells (or big eaters), resulting in destruction of bacteria.
For the study, scientists asked 159 study participants (women and men averaging 20 years old) to pose for professional headshots in which they maintained neutral facial expressions and wore no make-up or jewelry. The scientists also collected health information and blood samples for immune function testing. Then, they recruited 492 additional study participants (women and men, averaging 25 years old) and asked them to rate the facial attractiveness of the other participants based on the photographs that were taken. The scientists linked the photograph-based ratings with immune function (as assessed by laboratory tests), and found that participants with stronger immune function were rated as more attractive.
The scientists conclude that “although future research is needed replicate these results, the current research suggests that a relationship between facial attractiveness and immune function is likely to exist.”
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