The Evolutionary Psychology of Race, Beauty and Marriage

By Neuroskeptic | February 18, 2012 9:22 am

There are some papers that you can tell are going to be hot potatoes just from the titles. This is one of them: A Facial Attractiveness Account of Gender Asymmetries in Interracial Marriage.

Coming so soon after The Unconquered World, you’d be forgiven for thinking I am taking this blog in a more linkbaiting direction because I’m planning to introduce ads. I’m really not, it’s just a coincidence.

The paper claims that white women are on average more attractive than black, while East Asians are prettier still.  For men, however, the positions were reversed (and the effects were even stronger.)

Saying that black women are on average less attractive than others was what got evolutionary psychologist and blogger Satoshi Kanazawa into spot of bother last year. The current paper agrees with Kanazawa on that point (though doesn’t cite him)… although it also declares Kanazawa to be part of the least attractive race for males, so I don’t know how happy he’ll be about it.

Author Michael B. Lewis of Cardiff University took 600 Facebook photos “from people who were members of groups associated with further and higher education bodies either in the UK (for White faces), sub-Saharan Africa (for Black faces) and East Asia (for Asian faces).”

Photos with a “weird expression” and people who “looked” under 18 or over 30 were excluded. The actual ages were not checked. Hmm.

A panel of 40 British students (half male) were asked to rate all of the opposite-sex faces for attractiveness from 1 to 10. The ethnicity of the rater made no difference to the results but there were only 5 black and 6 Asian students out of 40 though:

After this we get some models proposing how these data might relate to British and American inter-racial marriage patterns, and some evolutionary speculation regarding why this might have evolved – Asia was cold so men were in short supply, that kind of thing – but that’s all assuming the basic data are solid.

There are many possible objections to the methodology here, some of which are addressed in the paper, but there’s one massive that isn’t –

It’s not stated how the Facebook images were gathered. All we’re told is that “a research assistant” got the images from higher education institutions. Were they, consciously or subconsciously, picking photos that fitted the expected some pattern?

We’re not told whether or not this individual was aware of the hypothesis of the study when they chose the pics. If they were aware, it’s a fatal confound; (Edit – 19th Feb 2012 – The paper in fact says that the research assistant was “naive” i.e. that they were not aware of the hypothesis of the study, which is of course sound methodology. I missed this statement in the first version of this post.)

However, the broader point remains that they might have been selecting in line with their own preferences, or some other bias. Clearly, there’s much room for cherry picking the examples, based on whether they “looked” too young or old, or had a “weird” expression…

Link: Also blogged about here.

ResearchBlogging.orgLewis, M. (2012). A Facial Attractiveness Account of Gender Asymmetries in Interracial Marriage PLoS ONE, 7 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031703

CATEGORIZED UNDER: controversiology, evopsych, faces, papers
  • petrossa

    From pure anecdotal personal observation i've noticed that the most attractive people are those of mixed ethnicity.

  • TheCellularScale

    I've had this weird, unsupported theory for awhile: that maybe there is a 'critical period' during development that determines/influences what race people find attractive as adults. As in: you like whatever race your elementary school peers were.

    I don't actually think there is evidence for this for humans, but some bird species show this kind of critical period. To such a degree that they will preferentially try to mate with a (slightly) different species if that is all they see at a certain age. (I'll try to find this paper.)
    Anyway, great point about the image selection process! You could find a distribution that would flatter any race. Even if it was a totally random sample of Facebook photos, it could represent a racial/cultural bias toward putting up flattering pictures of oneself.

  • Callum James Hackett

    How ridiculous! The sample of 20 British males is pathetic, and you're right to question the methods of farming images. It's also yet another point against the biases of evolutionary psychologists when they jump straight to an evolutionary explanation of something as complicated as race and attraction when, before that, you need to consider all the immediate environmental factors.

  • Anonymous

    It is hard to imagine a more badly planned and executed investigation.


  • LokaSamasta

    Interesting choice of picture?

    A borderline bleach blonde atypical Caucasian beauty whose face doesn't even conform to Phi!

    Suggest you change it to Joli 😉

  • Anonymous

    The current paper agrees with Kanazawa on that point (though doesn't cite him)… although it also declares Kanazawa to be part of the least attractive race for males, so I don't know how happy he'll be about it.

    Kanazawa is hardly an Asian chauvinist. He debated Geoffrey Miller on Asian scientific creativity, with Kanazawa taking the position that Europeans are more creative than Asians.


  • Jesse Marczyk

    Perhaps, as you note, the data are flawed in some ways. I have some quick points to make that deal not exactly with the study itself, but with our reactions to it.

    Let's assume for a moment that this study was re-run and all the methodical issues people have with it were dealt with: samples are random, pictures are standardized, there are more raters, etc.

    There are four different patterns in outcomes we could expect: (1) the results remain largely the same, (2) the results change, showing that races diverge less in terms of attractiveness, (3) the results change, showing the races diverge more in terms of attractiveness, or (4) the results change, showing a completely different pattern of racial attractiveness – perhaps the rankings now go Asian men, then Black, then White, and Black women, then White, then Asian.

    Out of those four different outcomes, I would guess many of people who take issue with this study would be figuring that outcome (2) would hold, and had results more consistent with (2) been obtained, this study would not raise any alarm. However, if the new study obtained results (1) or (3), it still wouldn't be taken seriously.

    It's been demonstrated that when people have the option of rejecting their conclusion or rejecting conflicting data, they tend to reject the data.

    Basically, if Kanazawa had just been wrong about another topic, or even right about his topic, it probably wouldn't have mattered much. It's just an ugly topic for some people.

  • Ryan Stuart Lowe

    Ahh, evolutionary psychologists. I'm surprised that they don't worry about controlling for cultural biases more, given the general criticisms thrown at them by humanists (feminist and critical race theorists, etc.).

    Considering how large the theories they weave (evolution to explain preferences for certain body/face types, really?), you'd think that they'd be careful about amassing a lot of data before leaping to conclusions.

    I read an evopsych article about how men's minds lit up over blue colors and women's minds lit up over red/pink colors. A simple wikipedia search would've told them that red/pink were considered masculine colors at the turn of the 20th century.

  • David Jacques

    If picked by someone, of course the selection of photos was biased. Great observation.

    Totally agree with Callum that the sample size of 20 males is laughable, making this data anecdotal.

    Keep up the fun posts!

  • The Peak Oil Poet

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • The Peak Oil Poet

    In my short story Asian fems rate highest

    The Model


  • Neuroskeptic

    Jesse Marczyk: Thanks for the comment. I agree that this is a hot button topic which makes it difficult to consider the question objectively. However I think the methodological flaws in this paper are nothing to do with that, it's just flawed.

    Personally I would be surprised if there were no differences in the average attractiveness of all ethnic groups because, well, they do look different, and it would be a bit weird if all the differences either had no effect on attractiveness or cancelled out, on average.

    But I've no idea what they are and I doubt anyone has been able to measure them objectively yet.

  • Andrew Oh-Willeke

    I commented on the paper at Dienekes' Anthropology blog and note, among other things, that the paper inaccurately states that there is no way to identify that you are multiracial in the American census.

  • Anonymous

    Interestingly, the findings on women's attractiveness mirror the orderings found by the staff at the dating site OKCupid: How does race affect the messages you get. The orderings for males found by the OKCupid staff isn't found by the present study. But personally I'd wager the reason to be that males tend to select more based on pure attractiveness whereas other factors like perceived intelligence (glossed from verbal fluency) and personality characteristics are used to a greater extend by women when they are on the dating market in general and especially online.

  • Tiel Aisha Ansari

    “Attractiveness” to “marriage patterns” is a big jump. Marriage patterns have to be viewed against a background of social factors that are unrelated to attractiveness, e.g. if you have no or limited opportunity to meet people of other races, you're likely to marry a same-race person even if you might have a genetic disposition to prefer other-race partners. Not to mention family and cultural pressures against inter-racial dating and marriage. A sample size of 40 split among 3 races and two genders just doesn't get us very far IMO.

  • pj

    Interesting that there was an RA attracted to this research group, prepared to take part in this study, but completely unaware of what they might be collecting photos of people for.

    In a completely different area a colleague who needed a naive researcher got his secretary to do it.

  • Neuroskeptic

    I've been assuming it was some undergrad's final year research placement.

    That's who I'd have used…

    – Good at Facebook
    – Probably has no idea what my work is about
    – Works for free

  • Anonymous

    As the author I should tell you that you are correct in thinking that it was an undergraduate who collected the faces. However, I did pay her. I feel very uneasy about unpaid internships.

    I accept that there are limitations to the study and in particular the comment about cultural specificity. My reply would be that the data that I was attempting to explain came from the same cultures as my participants. So while my data may not generalise to other cultures they are useful to understand our own.

    The reason for conducting this research was to find an explanation for the race asymmetries in interracial marriage. These patterns occur in census data. Until my article, the prevailing wisdom was that you needed to have a racial heirarchy to explain these patterns: the explanations were based on Black people having a lower status than White people. My research shows a way of explaining the observed data in marriage without having to argue that Black people have a lower status than White people. My research demonstrates how the same petterns can occur if all people of races have equal status within a society (as is the case in the UK).

    To petrossa, I refer him or her to my first article on mixed race attractiveness:

  • new york psychologists

    Excellent commenting, It seems very diplomatic though.

  • Marco Shirohige

    Now the difference face or skin should be ok, but for marriage, prefer the one race. If in east asia, white skin is more beauty still, but not in the U.S., look at the many beautiful black artists.

  • marco

    If in east asia, white skin is more beauty still, but not in the U.S., look at the many beautiful black artists.
    Now the difference face or skin should be ok, but for marriage, prefer the one race.

  • Jacob

    Hey Neuroskeptic! Not sure if you can still see this, but I just wanted to ask you: do you think this study is valid? Seeing that the pictures were selected and that there were only 20 raters, do you believe that these results are accurate.
    I should also note that in the author’s previous study (same methodology was used) about mixed-race faces, there was no significant difference between Black women and men.

  • Stephanie MacMillan

    Marriage is a financial-economic structure for the provision of goods and income in order to provide security to women and children, while women are raising them. In return, a man receives heirs, lineage, continuance of the family name, and someone who does his laundry and cooking.



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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