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We Are the (Average) World: A Study in Women’s Faces Worldwide

The above compilation, which purports to show what the most “average” female faces across the globe look like, has been circulating the Web over the course of the past few days, and some people have wondered how such attractive faces could be considered “average” when we’ve all been to places like Disney World and seen “average” faces that aren’t quite so pretty. But what if we’re interpreting the word “average” the wrong way? What if we were talking about “mathematically” average faces? And if we are, what makes those attractive?

First, regarding the methodology behind how these faces are made, there’s an interactive site called Face Research which features several “psychological” experiments involving facial structure and photo widgets. One widget in particular claims to allow users to “create the average face.” Some Internet commenters speculate that that’s where the averaged women’s faces above come from, though we don’t know for sure; even if not, the underlying technology is probably similar. As for the faces that were plugged in to whatever face-averaging algorithm was used, one theory has it that they come from a set of original photographs of people from specific regions of the globe and perhaps displayed on a blog called The Postnational Monitor back in 2009, as seen here, here, and here.

Here are a few male examples from that site:

Again, these are not what we think of when we visualize an “average” guy. But we’re talking mathematical averages here, which means that the ratios of the face are averaged out within a compilation of several faces in a given ethnic group, then adjusted for symmetry. So don’t feel inadequate; ‘average’ as applied to the female and male faces above does not mean “the sum of the attractiveness quotient of n people within a given population divided by n,” but rather that the set of inputs has been algorithmically massaged in such a way that they become peculiarly pleasing to the eye, even though all that has happened is that the picture encompasses the greatest commonalities of the group.

So, why are we attracted to these “mathematically average” faces? In other words, why do we think all these faces are so hot? Going back to the ratios of the face, a lot of the faces pictured are similar in proportion, covering all different ethnic groups. According to Liz Savage, our perceptions of beauty are universal, whether it be between nationalities, cultures, or even age groups. Human brains, over time, come to accept a “facial prototype,” a vague composite of all the faces it has ever seen.

When we are exposed to a new face, for example, our brain takes notice and stores the face away for later use. As we encounter more faces, the brain creates a “face” category and tries to find commonalities or similar patterns between the faces in the category. These patterns become the basis of the face prototype.

The closer a face is to the prototype, the faster it is processed. [Researcher Piotr Winkielman] believes this faster processing is the reason more prototypical items, including faces, receive a more positive assessment. The brain gives itself a pat on the back for quickly detecting a pattern among the faces. “It’s good to make order out of chaos. The brain rewards itself for finding something meaningful,” he said.

So, attractive people, or people who most closely fit our facial prototypes, are less work on our brains. Well, that explains a lot.

No answer on why the ladies are getting more, er, face time than the gents in these pics, but then again, we don’t know exactly who came up with the images in the first place or how. We just have some interesting pictures and theories to go with them. And since when is that not fun?

(Face Research, The Postnational Monitor, BuzzFeed)

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