“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
How do we even decide this?
The short answer to the first question is George Clooney (women always knew), and Kate Moss.
The answer to the second question takes a little longer.
Why is he considered so attractive?
Symmetry. Many studies show that symmetrical faces are perceived as ideal. We get pleasure from symmetry. Symmetry drives the self-organization of the brain, helping it to make sense of the visual chaos. After the side-to-side symmetry comes the ratio of width and height of the face, the ratio of eyes to nose to mouth, and so on. Applied is the classic Golden Ratio, the same one frequently employed by Leonardo da Vinci and countless other artists throughout history. George Clooney checks off all the marks.
What makes other mortals different from George Clooney?
Human faces are not symmetrical, they are chiral. Even George Clooney face isn’t 100% symmetrical, it is just very, very close. Stemming from the Greek word for hand, “… an object or system is chiral if it is distinguishable from its mirror image; that is, it cannot be superimposed onto it.” Human bodies, although they might look like it from the outside, are not symmetrical, and neither are their faces.
What would I look like if my face were symmetrical? Would I be a beauty idol?
Let's symmetrize. Photography is a great tool to visualize chiral faces and offers an easy way to simulate side-to-side symmetry. With a little help from friends who graciously volunteered, I took straight head shots, then during post-processing, divided the digital images in the middle and mirrored each side. Voilà, now we have the desired symmetrical human, the good and the evil twin, so to speak.
(Disclaimer: This is not a scientific experiment, just a fun project. Don't read too much into it.)
Take a look at the 2 images of each person. Clearly, the two versions of the same person differ, some more than others.
This asymmetry that you are now aware of already exists at birth (and can be furthered by genetic environmental stressors). It is typically not something we acquire over the years even if aged faces might show it clearer.
Which one is "more me"?
I should mention physiognomy. In its truest sense, it would mean the general form or appearance of something, but is nowadays mainly understood as the pseudo-science of judging character from facial characteristics. Physiognomy is mainly what we employ when we meet someone. Our brain assess their facial features and creates a composite image of the person's face. Within split-seconds after seeing someone for the first time, we (not the brain) make a decision, a snap judgement of personality. Furthermore, we act on this decision.
First impressions are highly influential. Granted, it is not only the face, but posture, gesture, clothing, and so on, that play a role as well. However, scientific studies conducted with only mugshots demonstrate that we confidently base character decisions on facial expressions/features. Among other far reaching decisions, political elections are commonly decided on impressions rather than objective skills.
Evolution has taught us the benefits of making quick decisions, but your first impression judgement is one that needs a review. Recent cross-cultural studies show that most first impression judgements are driven by over-generalizations (social conditioning) and that facial expressions signal only temporary intentions and social goals (directing behavior in a contextual manner) rather than emotional states and permanent character traits.
Let me rephrase: We can't read well and what we are reading is not what we think it is. We give too much weight to our first impression "skills," and we might do better as a society if we read faces not as revealing hidden character traits, but rather as temporary signals actively trying to steer to us in a certain direction. Character can only be assessed over time.
What are we reading then?
We are reading symmetry. In general, what easily communicates with a viewer is strong expressions. Happiness, anger, etc., clearly appear on both sides of the face. The more areas overlap, the more symmetry is present, and this sends strong signals. The brain immediately knows what to do.
It becomes a lot trickier when the overall expression is more ambiguous (for example, when resting) or the face has stronger asymmetries. The two sides of the face contradict each other. It is harder for the brain "to make sense." Subconsciously, the viewer become uncertain, a bit cautious perhaps. Possibly this is where the expression “two-faced” comes from. Unfortunately, this term has an undeserved negative connotation - the face is simply giving mixed signals.
Take a look at the volunteers and read the message of their faces when they were photographed. You might recognize one portrait and not the other. Remember, it is just a point in time.
Is there a dominant side?
Not really. When presented with competing information from the left and right sides of the face, the brain will try to combine the two halves into something that makes sense to us, using overlapping areas as much as possible. Our conditioning/prejudices factor in and we make a decision based on learned behavior. There is no dominant side, and there is no “real me” side.
The optimal face?
Back to the world of George Clooney and Kate Moss. Plastic surgeons, other beauty professionals and influencers, are well aware of the chiral phenomenon and the golden ratio, and will steer you towards creating a more balanced look. How far would you go?
Artificial intelligence rendered this optimized face, all ratios optimized.
All this perfection does not necessarily mean more beautiful. For further reading, I’d like to point to the Japanese fukinsei principle, which always throws in a dose of asymmetry and irregularity, to trigger an “optimal level of stimulation."
Is there a good side?
People often refer to their “good side” when sitting for a portrait. Until recently, I thought this was completely subjective, but studies do suggest that the left cheek of the face shows slightly more emotions, especially positive ones, and most viewers find the left side more aesthetically pleasing. You may judge for yourself on the many faces presented here.