Lots of people don’t like to admit they have a type. Maybe they think it makes them seem predictable or shallow. They would be right, but the good news is that science has proven we are all predictable and shallow.
Reporting at Time, Alexandra Sifferlin explores new research, published in Current Biology, that found that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s a result of your life experiences and what you’ve been exposed to.
First, 35,000 people rated faces on a site called Testmybrain.org. They found that there was about a 50 percent consensus on who was considered attractive—probably at least in part, Sifferlin notes, because lots of us are just suckers for symmetry.
But what about the other half of the faces we don’t agree on? Part 2 of the study looked at facial preference of identical (547 pairs) and fraternal twins (214 pairs). Researchers wanted to know how different or similar their preferences would be given that in these instances they’d grown up together and shared a frightening amount of genetic overlap.
If something is really influenced by genes you would expect identical twins to be more similar to each other than the fraternal twins, Wilmer says. On the other hand, if family environment is highly influential, the researchers would expect fraternal twins to be quite similar to each other in preferences.
Only it turns out they weren’t. The identical twins, in spite of having all this overlap, Wilmer said, had very different preferences for facial aesthetics, leading researchers to conclude that we like what we like because we like it, not because it’s inherited.
This is not necessarily a huge revelation, but it’s an interesting entry in the larger conversation about preferences and attraction, which is an ever-shifting, mysterious thing. In light of this and previous research, the study’s author, Laura Germaine, offered insight into how our preferences are formed. Germaine told Time:
“[Prior research] has found things like, if you take a face and you pair it with positive information, that face then looks more attractive, and faces that are similar to it also look more attractive and vice versa,” she says. “So you can imagine as you go through life and you form relationships and have friends and people you have a more positive relationship with, you may come to find their face characteristics more attractive, and then other people who look similar to them are then more attractive to you.”
“Exposure to certain faces makes them seem more attractive,” she adds. That means a face that is very different from a face that you have never seen before tends to be judged as less attractive. It also means the kinds of faces you are exposed to in your work environment, in your relationships or even the face of your spouse could shift the kind of faces that you find attractive, she says.
While certainly there’s always the possibility of the novel attraction, what’s great about this research is that it kills two birds with one stone. First, who you like is who you like, and that’s okay. But also: exposure matters. Putting more diverse groups of people in TV shows, movies, ad campaigns, billboards, music videos—these decisions can absolutely shift of our idea of what is human, what is real, what is lovely, and what is, of course, “normal.”
We are attracted to what we see, so exposure is critical. The more we scrutinize and upend the images that permeate our lives with more diverse representations of beauty, the more we chip away at the tribal thinking that can be ignorant and limiting at best, and racist at worst. We recently examined the common dating practice of rejecting men for being short, and though I hadn’t read the above research at the time, my takeaway would still be the same—no one should be shamed for their dating preferences, but that doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes worth thinking them over.
There’s preference, and there’s prejudice. Most people tend to prefer, based on behaviors analyzed of 25 million OK Cupid users, someone of the same race. As this Guardian video on racist dating illustrates, white men do pretty well, while black and Asian men do not. Asian women do, but for equally racist reasons, namely the fetishization of them as submissive and docile. And such stated preferences can be blatant. As a recent Daily Beast article points out, in the gay dating community, there can be relentless rejection filters that rule out entire groups based on race alone:
Sometimes, men even use foods as metaphors for entire ethnic groups: “No rice” to deter Asian men, “no spice” to keep the Latinos away, and “no curry” to tell Indians they don’t have a shot.
Unfortunately, when we begin dehumanizing and discarding potential mates based on categories like race, that might mean we’ve been too accepting of the idea that “your type is your type.” So while yes, it’s okay to like who you like, it’s never too late to wonder if your “type” is the result of an incredibly narrow view of the world. If for no other reason than when it comes to finding love, the more options, the better.
Images via Getty.