Dear Johns: Together, you sure are spunky

Last updated 05:00 21/09/2013
John Campbell and John Key
John Campbell and John Key

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We're used to seeing Prime Minister John Key and television journalist John Campbell going head-to-head in interviews.

But take the same hybrid image, squishing their two faces into one, and people who would not recognise the pair suddenly find the combination attractive.

The two Johns have been used in some bizarre new research, jointly done between New Zealand, the United States and the Netherlands, which is the first to show that part of what makes a face alluring is not just about facial make-up, but also how easy it is to perceive and process those features in the mind.

Essentially when looking at hybrid faces - say, Key with Campbell or singer Hayley Westenra with television host Petra Bagust, we recognise the hybrids - and Kiwi respondents found them jarring.

But when the same celeb mash-ups were shown to Dutch respondents they found them more attractive, because they did not know the Kiwi celebrities.

The reverse was done on volunteers shown Dutch celebrities in the Netherlands, with the identical result.

"What we found is that well-known people become less attractive when their faces are combined, whereas unknown people become 'more' attractive," Otago University social psychologist and study co-author Jamin Halberstadt said.

"We think this is because when the original faces are detectable in the blend, the identities 'pull' at our facial recognition system, creating an a cognitive tension that makes us see the person in a more negative light."

For those close to the images that was certainly the case.

Westenra had her face blended with Bagust. Her father, Gerald, said he could see the similarities to each person and while the hybrid was "not an ugly image" he preferred his daughter's face as it was.

The study turns a cornerstone of beauty psychology on its head - the theory of beauty in averageness, which holds that an average size face with symmetry among features is a good pointer to a person's health and fertility.

"Attractiveness and beauty are many splendoured things. But psychologists trying to understand exactly how the mind forms these impressions have isolated one relatively simple factor - averageness," Dr Halberstadt said.

"In a kind of Goldilocks principle, everything should be balanced, not too big, not too small."


It gave one celebrity the "heebie-jeebies" and a veteran mayor was chuffed with his newly youthful appearance - and it was all in the name of science.

Television personality Suzanne Paul said she could not stop looking at her photo, even if it did give her the "heebie-jeebies".

"It's me - but not quite me.

"I think I look older and tired," Paul said.

"I can't even tell which bits are me. Definitely the mouth is more Helen but the teeth are mine ... I think if I saw this woman out and about I'd think she looked familiar," Paul said.

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"Maybe this is what I'll look like in another 10 years - it's spooky."

Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt reckoned his hybrid was a "vast improvement".

"I reckon that guy should be running for president, not mayor of Invercargill."

After seeing his hybrid with television presenter Jason Gunn, politician Winston Peters simply said: "In the words of the Otara Millionaires Club, how bizarre."

Gunn commented: "Not for the first time in his life, Winston has the balance of power.

"There's more of him there than me."

Sportsman and personality Marc Ellis said his hybrid with All Black captain Richie McCaw looked like a "younger, bigger brother" which was strange.

"I suspect it would look better with 95 per cent McCaw and 5 per cent me."

Singer Anika Moa said the whole idea of a hybrid face was "pretty out of it".

Dr Halberstadt said researchers found if two recognisable faces were blended, people recognised the hybrid but were disarmed, knowing something was not quite right.

But with unknown faces, where people had no expectation, the hybrid faces got a better reception than the originals.

- Fairfax Media

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