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The Impact of First Impressions

By: Steven H. Dayan, MD
Posted: June 17, 2008, from the July 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Like it or not, overwhelming evidence suggests that people judge others based on appearances. Although the maxims “Beauty is only skin deep” and “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” often are used, beauty is an adaptive mechanism for the promotion and evolutionary advancement of the human species. This phenomenon is evident even among babies and young children—studies have shown that they invariably prefer attractive facial features.1

Beauty and the best

The first impression that is created by an individual is highly dependent on physical appearance, and it results in a response that affects how they are perceived and treated. Modern research suggests that people respond favorably to attractiveness and associate it with positive character traits.2 Good-looking people are considered more socially competent, potent and intellectually capable than those who are less attractive. In contrast, abnormal facial features and unattractiveness elicit negative responses and are associated with off-putting personality traits.

Certain physical features often are deemed desirable in all cultures. These include symmetry, youthfulness and averageness. Evolutionary biologists assert that certain facial features are physical indicators of health. These lead to a selective advantage for mating and the advancement of the species, and those who possess them are expected to be more evolutionarily fit and, therefore, more likely to manage the forces of natural selection—resulting in survival. This claim is supported by studies of animals whose symmetry and average features were commonly found in the fittest members of the species.3

The bias toward attractive people is evident in the preferential treatment they frequently receive in the educational, legal and business worlds. Conversely, unattractive people fall victim to a host of severe negative impressions. Physical unattractiveness can evoke perceptions of dishonesty, unintelligence and psychological instability. Whether a person experiences a job interview, a court trial or a first date, reducing a rosacea flush, clearing up acne or coloring gray hair may change the impression they make.

Studies using digitally and mathematically morphed facial images indicate that average and symmetrical faces are determined to be more attractive.4 Likewise, those with youthful-looking faces and bodies are preferentially selected as more appealing by responders. These proven-attractive attributes have become a primary goal in the cosmetic world.

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