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14th October 2011, 10:36am
Psychology research shows why a beautiful face really can turn heads
A human eye It's a scenario recounted by devoted couples everywhere - how their eyes were magically drawn to each other across a crowded room.

Now psychology research has shown there could be a scientific basis to these stories of magnetic attraction.

A study by academics at the universities of Lincoln and Hull in the UK found humans have an amazing ability to hone in on faces we find attractive - even when they only flit into the fringes of our peripheral vision.

Previous studies have indicated that we struggle to recognise even familiar faces outside of our central gaze. However, the new study - published in the academic journal Perception found that right at the very limits of our peripheral vision, we maintain a remarkable ability to pick out a potential mate.

The results might explain why our eyes can suddenly be drawn to an attractive face even when we are focussing on something elsewhere. They also support existing evidence that judgements about beauty hinge largely on basic information about the size, structure and spacing of certain features.

It is thought there may be adaptive reasons for being able to make such snapshot assessments of attractiveness.

Dr. Kun Guo, a Reader in the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, and Dr. Chang Hong Liu, a Reader in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hull, devised an experiment to find out whether people are still able to make assessments of beauty beyond the boundaries of their central gaze.

The researchers used an existing collection of photographs of human faces which had been pre-rated for attractiveness on a seven-point scale.

Volunteers were asked to focus their gaze on a central point, and than a pair of faces was flashed on either side of their peripheral vision for a split second (100 milliseconds). The participants were then asked to press a button to say which face they thought was most attractive - the one on the left, or the one on the right.

The pairs had been structured so that the difference in the pre-rated 'attractiveness' could be measured. So, in some cases, one face was clearly more attractive than the other. In other instances, the difference was more subtle.

Eye tracking technology was used to ensure participants' eyes remained focussed centrally. Those whose gaze strayed beyond a small limit either side were not counted in the study.

Photos were used several times on each side, to counterbalance any bias to the left or right.

Dr. Guo said: "It is remarkable that even in our peripheral vision, the ability to discriminate between attractive and unattractive faces was still well above what would be expected if responses were based purely on chance. This suggests that our visual system is able to use the low spatial frequency information to perform rapid appraisal of faces for attractiveness. This is consistent with prior observation that physical carriers of facial beauty are originally present in the coarse configural properties of faces."

Judgements about beauty appeared to be less clear-cut when the difference in the pre-rated attractiveness of two faces was smaller. This would suggest that people still rely on their central gaze to scrutinise faces in more detail and refine initial, rough assessments formed from their peripheral vision.

The paper 'I know you are beautiful even without looking at you: Discrimination of facial beauty in peripheral vision' by Kun Guo, Chang Hong Liu and Hettie Roebuck was published in the current volume of the journal Perception (2011 volume 40(2) pages 191-195).

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