Facial Preference Study Says Beauty Really Is in the Eye of the Beholder

New research from Mass General and Wellesley College says physical preference may be largely based on personal experience.

Saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder isn’t just a cliché—it’s science.

So says a new study by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Wellesley College. The researchers, led by Mass General’s Laura Germine and Wellesley’s Jeremy Wilmer, had 35,000 volunteers—including 547 pairs of identical twins and 214 pairs of fraternal twins—complete a facial preference study, and found that individual views of attractiveness are largely unique to each person.

The inclusion of identical twins was key to the study’s findings, as it proved that even people with the same genes don’t always agree on who’s hot and who’s not. That suggests that physical preferences are based mainly on experiences, like what your first boyfriend looked like or which celebrity you see most often in the media, rather than on a natural, genetic preference for certain traits. While the researchers acknowledged that some things, like facial symmetry, consistently make someone more attractive to others, Germine said in a statement that those factors seem to only go so far:

“We estimate that an individual’s aesthetic preferences for faces agree about 50 percent, and disagree about 50 percent, with others. This fits with the common intuition that on the one hand, fashion models can make a fortune with their good looks, while on the other hand, friends can endlessly debate about who is attractive and who is not.”

The researchers said in the statement that continuing to study how experiences and environment shape the brain could shed light on more than just who we find pretty—it could explain the roots of human preference in general:

“The types of environments that are important are not those that are shared by those who grow up in the same family, but are much more subtle and individual, potentially including things such as one’s unique, highly personal experiences with friends or peers, as well as social and popular media,” Germine said.