Familiarity breeds attraction

Friday 28 August 2009

Researchers have found that single-sex schools can have a ‘significant impact’ on what young people find attractive in a face.

The new study suggests that female students who are surrounded every day by other girls are more attracted to feminine looking boys like High School Musical’s Zac Efron.

Boys however were less susceptible – while those at all male schools tended to prefer boys with more masculine faces, they weren’t so fussy how feminine girls looked.

The study, led by the University of St Andrews, found that the effect was weakened if children had siblings of the opposite sex at home.

Led by St Andrews’ researcher Dr Tamsin Saxton, in collaboration with the Universities of Aberdeen, Stirling and Liverpool, the findings are published in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Tamsin, a postdoctoral research fellow sponsored by the Economic and Social Resarch Council and based at the University’s School of Psychology, commented, “The research is evidence that a person’s ‘visual diet’ can influence what they think is attractive.”

The study team asked 240 children (aged 11 to 15) at co-educational and single-sex schools to rate faces in terms of attractiveness.  The faces had been manipulated using computer digital techniques to look subtly more masculine or feminine.

The researchers had predicted that girls at single-sex schools would prefer more feminine faces, while boys at all male schools would prefer more masculine faces.

Consistent with the prediction, girls at single-sex schools – compared with girls at mixed schools – demonstrated significantly stronger preferences for facial femininity in both male and female faces.   Boys, on the other hand, demonstrated marginally stronger preferences for facial masculinity in male faces, but did not differ in their ratings of female faces.

Students were also asked whether they had brothers or sisters at home, in order to take into account other aspects of their ‘visual diet’.  Although attending a single-sex school affected students’ judgments, this effect was weakened if they were exposed to siblings of the opposite sex.

Tamsin continued, “Interestingly, the weakest effect of  ‘visual diet’ was in relation to boys’ judgments of girls’ faces. This might be because femininity is such an over-riding cue to female facial attractiveness, or perhaps because even at a single-sex school, boys see more female faces around them, in their teachers and so on.”

The work echoes previous research that has shown that exposure can affect people’s judgments of the ‘normality’, and attractiveness, of a face.   Previous research has shown that women tend to prefer men with feminine faces such as Leonardo DiCaprio or Jude Law for long-term relationships.  However, this is the first study to look at the effect of single-sex schools on such preferences amongst young adolescents.

Dr Anthony Little of the University of Stirling commented, “This kind of study helps researchers understand how the brain processes faces. Faces are crucial to our everyday interactions, and the brain has specialised areas dedicated to dealing with them”.

The paper Adolescents preferences for sexual dimorphism are influenced by relative exposure to male and female faces by Tamsin Saxton, Anthony Little, Lisa DeBruine, Benedict Jones and Craig Roberts, is published in Personality and Individual Differences this month.

Take part in facial perception experiments online.



TAMSIN IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW ON 01334 463044, EMAIL [email protected]


The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.  More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

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Ref: Familiarity 270809
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