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Ira Flatow on Science: The Power of a Pretty Face

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Does having an attractive face make you irresistible? Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday speaks with Alex Chadwick about a new study on the science behind the power of beauty.

ALEX CHADWICK, host: From NPR News, it's DAY to DAY. Beauty may be only skin deep, but that's enough according to a new study of beauty and how we perceive it. Ira Flatow, host of Science Friday and regularly Thursday contributor to DAY to DAY, is here. Ira, what about this new research. Don't we already know that having a pretty face gets you pretty far in life?

IRA FLATOW reporting:

Yeah, we do, you know. And this has been backed up many times by research. People deemed visually attractive, we all know they get paid higher wages. They're judged to be more intelligent by other people in study after study, and it's interesting that even babies prefer pretty faces in these studies.

So this new research adds two new interesting details, though. One is how solidly the preference for a pretty face may be hardwired into our brains and therefore something common to all the cultures around the world. And second, and this is really interesting, just how quickly we make up our minds, our first impressions about just what is pretty.

ALEX CHADWICK, host: So how quickly do we do it?

FLATOW: Well, this is really dramatically shown in a series of experiments. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, pictures of ordinary people and people from their high school yearbooks and on the Internet to a test group of people, subjects, asking them to rate the photos. Were these people we're showing you, are they ugly? Or are they pretty?

And here is the really intriguing part: the faces were flashed on a computer screen for just a fraction of a section. Now, I'm talking about really short, 13 one-thousandths of a second. So fast, actually too fast for the faces to be consciously seen. The people look at the faces and said they couldn't see a face. They said they'd have to guess because they really couldn't see what the face looked like, whether the face was attractive or not.

CHADWICK: Well, if it's that fast, how did they do with their guesses?

FLATOW: Well, they actually guessed quite accurately, even though they said, "I can't see anything, and I'm guessing it." The whole thing was done a subconscious sort of an unconscious level, and they made their choices that way.

CHADWICK: What about the other point, Ira, why we tend to prefer and reward prettier faces?

FLATOW: Yeah, there was another experiment that scientists were trying to see if it's true that if you see a pretty face, you know, you tend to associate it with a positive attribute. And sure enough, that was backed up with a word association game.

People were shown a face, then a word and asked if they would classify the word as good or bad. When first shown a pretty face, then positive words like laughter or happiness, they responded more quickly than if they were shown a face that was not pretty. As a control, they were shown a house instead of a face, for example, and sure enough, they did not respond more quickly to the positive words, which makes the researchers believe that there must be some hardwiring going in the brain that makes us prefer pretty faces.

And if that's so, the lesson is that if someone flashes one at you, be aware of this beauty bias as being real and by mindful of it when dealing with others. And conversely, I say, if you have a pretty face, use it. It's pretty powerful, and unfortunately, it's a tool I'll never be accused of having.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, the bold and the beautiful, Thursday's on DAY to DAY and host of NPR's Science Friday. Ira, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome, Alex.

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