Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
You Are Less Beautiful Than You Think (scientificamerican.com)
139 points by footpath on May 22, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 74 comments

I don't think this study supports the article's headline. That headline, more explicitly stated is: "[Society rates you as] less beautiful than you [do]". Why? Someone's physical beauty is a property that depends on what everyone thinks. You could say "beauty to a certain group" or "beauty to yourself", but to just use the term "beauty" by itself implies "beauty as society sees it".

But in the study, there is no rating by others, simply by yourself. So if you really wanted to make a statement about people actually being more or less beautiful than they themselves think they are, you would need a way for someone to assess themselves as if they were a stranger. I know a few times when I looked at a mirror and didn't immediately process that it was a mirror, I saw myself "objectively". I wonder if there's some way you could incorporate that phenomenon into a study. I would also suggest amnesia patients who have forgotten what they look like but 1) I don't know if that happens 2) people with amnesia can still remember things in a certain way (like how to play the piano), so I don't know if that would affect their own rating as well.

People studies are hard because there are just so many factors that affect the results, and it's not always intuitive what affects what. Really, most of these studies only directly support exactly what they tested, in this case: people choose the most attractive version of themselves when presented with different variations.

I disagree. Sure, "beauty" isn't a very robustly-defined term, but the headline is reasonable. The most important point is that people's views of themselves are objectively wrong, because the identify modified images of themselves. Conversely, people can reliably pick the correct image of others. Finally, this depictions differ in that the self-image has characteristics society deems attractive, for our purposes, "beauty". I don't think beauty is quite the best term, but I wouldn't call it wrong.

Also, I think your proposed study would undermine the whole point of this study, since someone who didn't realize they were looking at themselves wouldn't have the cognitive impetus to distort reality.

edit: I just realized I may have been missing part of your argument. Would you be more satisfied if the title were "You are less beautiful than you _say_ you are"? This study itself doesn't offer any real evidence that people actually believe they look like the picture they say they look like. However, the other cognitive studies linked in this article, including some other similar studies I've read about, make me think it's extremely likely.

I have a hypothesis. In general people have poor perception of their ability along any measure X. Sometimes they are better than they think but most of the time they are worse than they think. The former will happen more often if you have a tough teacher or a guide, while the latter will happen more often in tasks with less feedback other than your own thoughts (Most of us think we are better drivers than we actually are).

> Conversely, people can reliably pick the correct image of others.

I wonder if this changes if the photos they see of others are mirrored?

I skimmed the original paper today, and they did indeed perform a follow-up experiment where participants were asked to identify themselves based on mirror images. That follow-up experiment yielded similar results. No follow-up experiment was conducted for identifying mirror images of others, but it seems such an experiment would have been redundant.

>> I know a few times when I looked at a mirror and didn't immediately process that it was a mirror, I saw myself "objectively". I wonder if there's some way you could incorporate that phenomenon into a study.

Yes, there are ways to induce this, but I'm not entirely sure of the legality of recreating that phenomenon artificially.

My immediate reaction was that the problem with the commercial was the artist's bias.

He knew what the commercial was supposed to be. He knew whether he was drawing from a self-description or a description by a third-party.

So, naturally, he drew more attractive pictures when a third-party was describing the person.

There's also a social bias in the commercial. People are socialized not to say negative things about other people, particularly not other people's looks, and particularly not women's looks. The artist was drawing off a verbal description; if people consciously filter out their negative thoughts before expressing them ("If you don't have anything nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all"), then that verbal description will be biased.

The subject herself, however, is probably socialized not to brag, and so her verbal description filters out the most positive aspects.

On a side note, I'm curious what the results would be if you took someone on the autism spectrum and had them describe a woman they just met. Many such people have no such tact filters; would you get a more accurate drawing from them?

My girlfriend was telling me about Vietnamese culture the other day (her family is Vietnamese). She put particular emphasis on the the vastly different social norms between Vietnam and the Western world. From what she told me, woman are much more forthcoming about their true opinions of another woman's looks in Vietnam and the Eastern world.

Similar to how getting a description from someone on the autism spectrum would product vastly different results, I'm curious as to how the results of the experience would differ in different countries and different parts of the world.

Interesting...I have a Vietnamese friend that's always complaining about how her mother and her fiancee's mother are always talking about how she's not pretty enough or not pretty enough for her fiancee. Explains a lot.

That was my reaction, too. The idea seemed ridiculous from a scientific perspective (although it may be very good advertising).

It's hard to believe these completely.

> Most people believe that they are above average, a statistical impossibility

It's perfectly possible for the majority to be above the mean. If most people believed to be above the median, that would be a statistical impossibility.

I think there is another reason for people to believe their results in some areas are better than those of others: because of their own world view. A teacher who focusses on controlling the classroom may see many colleagues be worse at that and decide they're not as good a teacher as him; his colleague who prefers to leave the studying behaviour of his students may think his controlling colleague is not as good a teacher as him because he doesn't leave students enough freedom. Whether this applies to beauty I don't know - I'd expect it to apply only to aspects that they chose to modify (i.e. someone with dyed hair will probably have dyed their hair in a colour they believe to be more attractive and then believe they're more attractive).

You're exactly right. When I try to make myself look attractive, I aspire to my own standards (and my wife's). When others try to make themselves look attractive, they aspire to their different standards. We modify a lot of things about our own looks, which may not be as blatant as hair dye: clothing, hairstyle, makeup, facial hair, eyewear, and of course our own facial expressions. This means others have a lot of opportunity to boost themselves according to their standards, and penalize themselves according to mine.

Likewise, I'm more likely to have a "good life" than others by my own definition. I'm more likely to be "educated" than others in the fields which I consider education important. I'm more likely to find the "right balance" between work and family, or between present and future, or between hope and realism, because I'm aspiring to exactly the point which I consider "right".

Generally, people tend to do better according to their own standards than others' standards, and are thus more likely to be "above average".

Your stats are true when outliers massively move a mean.. but that wouldn't be the case in a distribution like this one... I don't think. I mean it's more appropriate to imagine a normal distribution here with the mean equal to the median because the measurement is totally subjective anyway.

Theres a huge difference between something being statistically impossible, and something being statisticly impossible, assuming it is a normal distribution.

Might just be tired but I don't get this...care to explain?

In a normal distribution, the mean and median are the same value, so only 50% of the data points can be above average. Without this assumption, you are not guaranteed to have only 50% of your data points above average.

For example, what percent of the population do you think has an above average number of legs?

Last line is the Best Example Ever of median and mean not agreeing. Did you come up with it yourself?

If you assume a normal distribution, it is statistically impossible for more than 50% of people to consider themselves above the mean on a given metric. However, if the distribution is severely negatively skewed (i.e., the "bulge" of the distribution is moved to the left and there are many outliers below the mean) then more than 50% could be above the mean because the outliers on the left end of the distribution drag the mean down significantly.

Technically, "average" is not a precise term, and can also be used to refer to the median or the mode. In a situation like attractiveness, the median and mean are likely to be approximately equal, so the distinction isn't very important.

And, the article went right on to talk about the median, in fact :)

> Most people believe that they are above average, a statistical impossibility. The above average effects, as they are called, are common. For example, 93 percent of drivers rate themselves as better than the median driver.

So generally, people think they're more valuable than society would settle on? As a new father, I'd say that sounds like the best fucking news I've heard in quite a while.

Further, I think you should optimize for this. This kind of even-arrogance about your potential and innate worth is awesome. I've spent the last decade sort of cultivating it in myself. I definitely think I'm more attractive than I imagine someone who sees my photo would say I am, on average. It's intentional, and frankly hard-won.

The trick, I think is to balance an unreasonable confidence about your attributes/abilities, with a bloodless humility about your accomplishments.

As I said in another comment, I believe we are generally very poor at telling how we rate on any given scale, unless we have something very tangible - an objective score (like in a game), lots of outside confirmation, etc. Most of us think we are better drivers than we are. When you do not have as much outside feedback, it's easier to talk yourself into believing anything.

One of the best applications of this is to be more positive and happier.

There are a host of potential problems with the experiment design as descried in the article, though since the original research is behind a paywall, I imagine I will remain ignorant of the excruciating experimental design details. The author of the SciAm article throws around such nonsense as "computer retouched" to make more attractive, as if the entire result did not depend on exactly how that was undertaken.

It's doubtful that the results could be replicated and almost certain that they never will.

This "science" is such bullshit and an utter waste of time and money. It does not broaden the scope of human knowledge, because 1) its probably not true, and 2) even if it is, it is only demonstrably true within a tiny context. We were far better off when psychologists did not conduct experiments, and just considered their experience and thought deeply. Covering a turd in a thin veneer of p-values and R-squareds does not make it science.

Photographs are not objective. I have certainly had the experience of photographing my beautiful girlfriend and having the images come out ugly. A million small things can ruin the image: a shadow, harsh lighting, reflections, background, etc.

I have, many times, taken some photos of good looking friends of mine and had the results come out badly. Often I will take such images into Photoshop and fix the images. The images, after I have adjusted them in Photoshop, are closer to objective reality, that is, closer to what I see when I look at the people in question.

Photographs do not record the sum total of objective reality. They catch a moment that is embedded in a million small circumstances.

When we say someone is pretty we often mean they look pretty at their best moments. We don't mean they look pretty at 8 AM after a night of hard partying and when they are badly hung over. Even pretty people have ugly moments, but if that is all you photograph, are you being objective?

As to images, often the "truth" only comes out after extensive editing of the image in Photoshop. Therefore, I find the methodology used in this study to be highly questionable.

You would be surprised at the difference focal length can make - http://stepheneastwood.com/tutorials/lensdistortion/strippag...

If you haven't seen the Dove commercial, you should watch it while reading this article from The Last Psychiatrist:


Although the article is interesting, I think one of the comments is much more "to the point":

What gets me about this ad is that no one understands why the women basically described themselves as trolls and the women they were talking to as goddesses. They're being filmed. They know it, and they know it's being put up somewhere. They don't want to be seen as having an over-inflated ego - they know exactly how it's going to look to the watcher if they describe themselves as more beautiful than they are. They have to have had an idea of what the guy is doing, which means they're going to know there's going to be a sketch hanging next to their real face. Wouldn't you want to look nicer than the sketch?

As for the women they're describing. When a stranger asks you what you think of their hair, have you ever said, "I hate it"? Again, they know that someone is sketching. They describe the other woman in the prettiest terms they can.

This isn't a deep look into their feelings about their actual looks, it's an exercise in self-marketing and politesse.


Yes that was pretty obvious looking at the Ad. People are very less likely to criticize other people's appearance before a camera especially in a country like US where people tend to be ridiculously politically correct.

It was also a commercial. Commercials also magic soap bubbles and talking birds.

Even assuming they did the commercial straight up with "real people", and the sketch artist wasn't in on it, there could have been a huge file-drawer effect of the 200 people/takes where the pictures came out the other way or just the same or just too bland to work in a commercial.

> there could have been a huge file-drawer effect

The technical term is "reporting bias".

I've always had a poor self image, so according to the article I must be really ugly.

Ditto. When I was watching The Matrix and everybody's "residual self image" in the Matrix was super cool, I thought: "If I entered the Matrix I would probably be in jeans and an ugly t-shirt"

Same here...


So I guess I must be morbidly obese as well, since I'm American, and nearly 50 years old?

And, yet, it is overwhelmingly to your advantage to believe that you are attractive. Confidence counts for more than actual physical beauty.

This study provides an interesting example of a situation where it is in your rational interest to hold irrational beliefs.

Well said. When people think poorly of themselves, they tend to sulk and wonder why others perceive them in a certain (likely unattractive) way.

With what populations have the studies been conducted?

First, if all the participants have been American, this is likely not applicable across the earth. I have lived in both Asia and the US, I'd say that on average Americans express significantly more self-confidence than those in Asia (whose customs tend to value humility and self-deprecation. And they tend to do so, at least to other people.).

Second, if the populations have mostly been students at universities like Chicago and Virginia. They are far from average people. Youths could be more optimistic. Those in good universities might have been exposed to the good sides of things much more than most people. Their academic success could stem from their optimistic outlook and vice versa. And so on...

Psychology needs to diversify from studying Americans, esp. students in good American colleges.

This effect also holds for one's own estimates that one's startup will not fail.

Although I imagine that if founders were told to describe each other's business plans the results would be far less flattering.

THANK YOU, this is a "hacker news" site not Marie Claire and we should not be the only people talking about peoples assessments of the beauty of their business plan or the beauty of their source code.

The analogy of women appearing to poorly evaluate their appearance seems to be lost on a population that suffers from the exact same cognitive malfunction WRT business plans and source code. There exist at least some rich business opportunities based on this analogy/observation...

One interesting startup idea is the obvious analogy that "everyone knows" that some programmers and their source, and, some businesspeople and their biz plans, will be 100x more successful/productive than everyone else in the field, YET at the lower level of the bell curve almost everyone agrees anyone can improve whatever it is they've got with a little study, practice, and effort. So where's something like "codeacademy" or "coursera" for style for those of us who want to take a online class in "how not to look/dress like a dork in 2013", or "shoes, what to wear in 2013". The killer problem would be not turning it into a manufacturers or retailers infomercial which would make it smell fairly useless, even if it was actually good advice. Where's the massively collaborative github where we figure out how to dress ourselves stylishly?

Could this effect possibly be partially affected/explained by the fact that most people primarily see themselves in mirrors, rather than directly or in photos? I assume I'm less accurate in my understanding of what I look like than what other people look like for that reason, regardless of vanity...

That's great. I'm even uglier than I already thought. I need to go wash this down with a big sloppy glass of warm Soylent.

The "parody" version of the Dove video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpWkZiZaQsA

Nowhere in this video is gender mentioned, or psychological conditions like body dysmorphic disorder, or even just plain old depression. One way to diagnose depression is that fallacy they mentioned where everyone thinks they're better than average, well, it doesn't work on depressed patients, they're the opposite.

This article is ridiculously oversimplified and really offers very little insight into the subject. It's a very nuanced topic.

With Google Plus' new photo enhancement features I fear people will become a bit further disconnected from reality. Neat tech for sure though

At least until Google Glass catches up

I think there's a gender bias missing here. I've known many beautiful women who only see their flaws. They really don't know how beautiful they are. In fact they see themselves as average or below.

While I've known many average men who thought they were God's gift to women. Perhaps the confidence factor cited in another comment. Since most readers here are men, I suspect the sampling is biased.

This isn't helping people who don't think highly of themselves to start with.

The study could easily be showing simply that people are inclined to suspend disbelief when it benefits them in the scenario of choosing the picture that they want to be most like them... this isn't the same as saying that someone's self-image is somehow that idealized photo they're willing to suspend disbelief for.

People often look worse in photos than they do in real life simply because they don't know the tricks for adjusting their face and bodies to achieve the best effect. This photographer positions people in unnatural ways to ensure his subjects look their best:


Contrast this with how we see ourselves: In 3D and from a variety of angles. Indeed, when we look at ourselves in a mirror, we often position ourselves in ways that make us look our best. Who here hasn't done a 30 second mirror check/pep talk to remind ourselves how great we are? Ever strike a totally unnatural pose?

I think the subjects of these tests are looking at the images and picking the image that best fits the version of what they see in the mirror, hence the bias.

If I'm uglier than I already think I am, I'm in trouble.

This has been repeated ad nauseam and to me it seems like this is another one of psychology's attempt at masquerading as science.

The way someone view themselves is subject to many variables that goes beyond these generalization.

If you've ever experienced any psychoactive drugs that induce euphoria and confidence such as cocaine and amphetamine, you will see yourself as a lot more attractive and smarter than you actually are. Now, ask that same person to rate themselves when they're going through withdrawal. You can bet that their self-perception won't be the same.

You might say that we're discussing this in the context of a normal person without any external influence. But that's the catch. There's no such thing as a normal person and we're always under the influence.

Get someone to rate their attractiveness when they're hungry, when they're full, when they're heartbroken, when they're in love, when they're socially anxious and depressed, when they're confident and outgoing. Even the best of us have many bad days.

There are structures in our brain that filters out what's deemed as "irrelevant information" and it's extremely difficult to view yourself objectively. Think of it as a kind of information tolerance, similar to drug tolerance.

If we can adapt to the putrid stench of hydrogen sulfide, you can bet we'll adapt to seeing our own flaw. Likewise, given enough time, most people will come to adapt to the various tragedies and good-fortune that befall upon them. The brain is remarkable at adapting.

How do you think someone who is lean and fit would react if they woke up extremely obese the next day? They would be a lot less complacent than a regular obese person because that person has had a lot time to adapt to their change of appearance.

What makes matter even more complicated is peer comments. Not to be crass, but have you ever came across a not-so-attractive girl on facebook getting tons of compliments from other women?

Those white lies are extremely insidious and I've always struggle with the fact that I can't judge myself objectively. This also goes the other way. There are some extremely beautiful people whose self-perception have been ruined by bullying and insults.

Think about the time when you first start wearing contacts or glasses, it takes a few days to get use to your own appearance.

Now take an extreme example with people undergoing plastic surgery. Even when the change is positive, some people are traumatize psychologically afterward because they're unable to reconcile with new face, but your brain seems to adapt regardless of whether or not the change is positive or negative. So this may lead to an issue of ambiguity, where you can't even tell if the change is positive or negative. A stranger will have a much easier time though, if only we can get them to stop sugar-coating.

Long ago when I told a girl that I thought she was beautiful. She truly couldn't believe me because from her POV, it's hard for some people to see themselves as beautiful when they've been looking at the same face for decades.

Some beautiful people also can't take compliments seriously from those they've considered are not beautiful, because they erroneously believe that because this person's standard is lower, that somehow their sense of aesthetic is not up to par.

One thing is for sure, it's not a good idea to take your mother's compliment seriously. Most mothers think that their son is handsome.

On the other hand, if your drunk buddies are reluctantly lamenting over the fact that they couldn't be born with your face, otherwise they would be so much more successful with women, then maybe you really are a handsome bastard.

Very well put.

I actually find your points much more interesting that the ones made in the article. To me, it's not really interesting _that_ we have a biased view of our selves, no matter what direction, but _why_.

When I was young, a lot of other people thought I was "beautiful." It had a lot of downside to it. My looks have mellowed with age and I generally have fewer problems and I am generally happier. I really cannot parse out how much of that positive change (edit: I mean being more comfortable with how I look and how people react to me) is due to mellower looks and how much due to behavioral or other changes. And I still get weird feedback, like people guessing I am a lot younger than I really am.

I have never figured out how to get some kind of objective measure of just how "attractive" I am. Unfortunately, this article isn't adding anything useful to my keen interest in understanding such things.

This all might be explained by one factor: the amount of detail in the image. Well, that and the fact that most people seem to think that smooth featureless faces are more attractive. If you're familiar with your own face over time, you'll tend to overlook details since they change. If you meet someone just once, you might remember more specific features.

Also, something odd between these two studies: in one, people think they are more attractive than other people do, and in the other it's the opposite. This could be explained by people glossing over details when they describe a new face to someone else, while their own brain still has an image of the details that they would recognize later.

The Dove commercial is hardly a 'study,' I'm quite sure they determined the outcome before filming.

I'm definitely not as beautiful as I think. In my mind, I'm still a dashing handsome 25-year old. But the stupid mirror keeps insisting that I'm in my fifties with the wrinkles and sags to prove it.

"It would be a big relief if we all suddenly realized, like Christian Andersen’s ugly duckling, that we are in fact beautiful."

This is a tongue in cheek comment in the article but it's all to common to read comments that "each one of us is special", etc. This, of course, cannot be; however, it is a common fallacy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Wobegon#The_Lake_Wobegon_...)

What's next, that your breath is worse than you think it is?

Slightly related (to the fact that the idea we have of ourself is different by how others see us) I suggest you to read the italian classic "Uno, nessuno e centomila" (One, No one and One Hundred Thousand) by Luigi Pirandello: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One,_No_one_and_One_Hundred_Tho...

This is confusing to me, because most of the people I talk to who share their feelings about their looks seem to find themselves less attractive than my estimate. Maybe I'm just systematically overestimating people and they are in turn STILL overestimating themselves, but one has to wonder if this study is really finding what it thinks it's finding.

People may be showing humility. Also, when you talk to them, you may be measuring something other than their mental self- representation -- maybe they are expressing where they think they are relative to society, whereas the experiment is measuring the delta between self-image and reality.

tl;dr -- You can think yourself ugly, yet still not as ugly as you actually are!

Reminds me of a quote I heard recently about Gene Simmons on a radio show (via Jim Wendler).

The radio host was a woman that hated him, hated his attitude towards women and himself. She said to Gene, "I bet you are the kind of guy that walks into a room and thinks every woman wants him."

Gene responded, "Well, if I didn’t think that, no one would."

So yeah, I try and think it :-)

>The same morphing procedure was applied to a picture of a stranger, whom the study participant met three weeks earlier during an unrelated study. Participants tended to select the unmodified picture of the stranger.

This is the dumbest reasoning I can fathom if they wanted to prove that others think we are less attractive. All it proved is that other people have a good memory of what we look like.

They should have done this the opposite way. (Show the stranger an ugly-morphed version of the person's face and the regular version, if they chose the uglier version it would prove they remembered them as being uglier than they saw them originally.)

All they proved in that study is that the majority of humans have a good memory and that we WANT to look more attractive than we actually are. We don't think it, not most of us anyways, but we sure want to look better. When you show us a good picture and bad picture of ourselves and ask us to choose, we're going to pick the good looking one without a doubt.

"Oh yea, the one with the buckteeth and zits over there is me!"

This seems like an interesting example of the fundamental attribution error. I guess one could phrase it: I see others as they are and myself as I hope to be.

perhaps this is an evolutionary advantage for humans to perceive themselves as good at things they do even if they are average or worse. It provides motivation, confidence, and enhances risk appetite. All necessarily attributes for a long term adaptive species.

This is such an oversimplification of self-enhancement and a great example of confirmation bias.

My first reaction to the article title: "Yes, probably, but I prefer it stays this way"


tell me about it

I don't care really. Good vid though.

This is cultural. Americans and many westerners have a very high opinion of themselves, in terms of looks, intellect, etc. This doesn't hold true for everyone, however.

I view myself as a malformed hideous idiot with a vicious temper. Much better to keep expectations low.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact