Good looks are overrated in assessments of attraction


When you get up close and personal, how someone smells and sounds can be just as important. Andrew Masterson reports.


Don’t forget the aftershave: Science suggests that smell is an important component of attractiveness.
Chris Windsor / Getty

Investigations into how individuals decide whether a stranger is hot or not have concentrated too heavily on purely visual factors, according to a review published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The literature survey, conducted by a team led by Agata Groyeka of the University of Wroclaw in Poland, concludes that too few studies into attractiveness account for non-visual phenomena, such as body odour and vocal qualities.

Physical attractiveness has long been recognised as a key element in non-verbal communication, the scientists write, but too many studies have “largely ignored the significant contribution of non-visual modalities”.

That smell and sound are important elements in assessments of attractiveness is easily demonstrated. A trim, taut and terrific looking person is generally imagined to be suitable as a potential mate, but the effect is considerably muted if that person stinks like a dead fox or talks like Darth Vader.

Deciding whether someone is attractive is a multi-modal process, the researchers say, in which sight, smell and sound interact synergistically.

"Perceiving others through all three channels gives a more reliable and broader variety of information about them," Groyecka says.

The researchers suggest the interaction of the senses may have an evolutionary function, facilitating different methods of mate suitability. Visual information allows an initial assessment from a distance, while scent and sound permit a further refinement close-up.

At least one study, not included in team’s review, suggests that in certain circumstances a fourth factor plays a role in attractiveness assessments: beer.

A 2011 experiment led by Michael Lyvers of Bond University in Queensland, Australia, asked 80 students to evaluate the attractiveness of people shown in photographs while sober, slightly intoxicated and three sheets to the wind.

“Both intoxicated groups gave significantly higher attractiveness ratings than non-intoxicated controls,” the scientists reported.

“The findings confirm the ‘beer goggles’ phenomenon of folk psychology for both genders, although the mechanism remains unclear.”

The study was published in The Journal of Social Psychology.

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Andrew Masterson is an author and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.
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