More than a pretty face

SARAH BERRY
Last updated 09:25 13/11/2013
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They might have been a bit of a rough looking bunch, but Neanderthals were smarter than they seemed.

There is evidence that, In an effort to pretty themselves up, they wore cosmetics. That was 50,000 years ago and we're still on the beauty bandwagon.

But, there's more to make-up than meets the embellished eye.

Arnaud Aubert, an experimental psychologist and associate professor in the department of neurosciences at the Université François-Rabelais in France, spoke to The Sunday Times about how cosmetics can change our perception of a person.

Cosmetics can make us more likeable, help us fall in love and even seem more or less trustworthy, he said.

"As we have evolved, the brain has become capable of making complex social judgments on some very basic visual cues," Dr Aubert said.

"First you see the face, and then, after a quick visual decoding, a signal is relayed to the limbic area of the brain where an emotional level is assigned to what you have seen, either 'pleasant' or 'not pleasant'. This is then translated to the forebrain where it's decided whether the face is trustworthy or untrustworthy. This is carried out almost instantly."

By smoothing out blemishes and creating a defined sense of symmetry, cosmetics (at their best) make for a more "pleasant" translation process.

For instance, a little blush on the forehead and chin can shorten a disproportionately long, thin face. Eye shadow can balance eyes that are too far apart or close together while the right tone of foundation can create a flawless finish.

"All the social information is in the centre of the face," Dr Aubert told the Times. "If the brain is distracted by imperfections, it processes less and so has a weaker social assessment of the person it is looking at."

Several studies support Dr Aubert's assertions.

One study, by Buckinghamshire New University, found that people who wore make-up were perceived as healthier and more confident.

Participants also awarded women wearing make-up with a greater earning potential and with more prestigious jobs than the same women viewed without cosmetics.

But more is not more, it seems. The more "glamorous" the make-up, the less trustworthy the women were deemed, even though their attractiveness ratings increased.

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Another study, by Harvard University, came to a similar conclusion.

"We found that cosmetics have a significant impact on how attractive a face appears, but also on how likeable, trustworthy and competent they appear," said the study's lead author, Nancy Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Participants were asked to rate these qualities based on images of women made up in three ways, "natural, professional and glamorous".

The participants viewing the images were divided into two groups. The first was shown the images only for milliseconds, the second could look at the images for as long as they liked.

"When flashed quickly, every cosmetic look significantly increased how attractive, competent, likeable and trustworthy the faces appeared to the same faces without make-up," Professor Etcoff said.

"When people could look at the faces for as long as they wanted to, all make-up looks increased competence and attractiveness once again."

But, this time, when they appeared with the "glamour" make-up, the same women were seen as less trustworthy.

Using make-up to disguise as opposed to enhance may be a personal preference for some, but in terms of its effect on others, it seems it is unnecessary on many levels.

"Wrinkles around the eyes are not such a big deal. A lot of men in particular consider this type of wrinkle cute," Dr Aubert said of how they influence impressions.

Lines around the eyes, for instance, can indicate a lot of laughter in that person's life.

"Frown lines can be unattractive for the brain because they mimic a negative emotion."

While cosmetics can clearly affect perception and can enhance our features, they are, thankfully, not the only standard - particularly given it is a standard applied to women alone.

Those who don't like make-up will be pleased to know that self-care and a positive personality are more important factors when it comes to perception and attractiveness.

So while make-up might be a part of that "beauty" triangle, it certainly isn't the pinnacle.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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