Michael B. Jordan’s smooth, supple skin. George Clooney’s big, soulful eyes. A young Mark Harmon’s thick, wavy hair and small, pointed chin. Such facial characteristics—which scientists who study human perception rate “feminine”—may well be why each of the three actors at one time or another was named “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine. Clooney even won twice.
This aligns with findings by New York University postdoctoral scholar DongWon Oh; Natalie Grant-Villegas, who was a PhD student at Columbia at the time of the research; and Chicago Booth’s Alexander Todorov. Their experiments asking heterosexual women (most of them white and from the United States) to rate the general attractiveness of male faces suggest that such women typically prefer men’s faces that have more feminine shapes, which can include big eyes and small chins.
In aggregate, the women participants in Oh, Grant-Villegas, and Todorov’s experiments preferred male faces that signaled stereotypically feminine personality traits such as warmth, honesty, and nurturing, the researchers find. They conclude that straight women are often more attracted to men they perceive to have more feminine personalities.
Does this mean personalities literally show up in our faces? Not necessarily, Todorov says. Instead, we tend to hold stereotypes of others that link personality with the masculinity or femininity of their faces. The researchers cite previous research suggesting that men with very masculine features tend to be perceived as cold, dishonest, violent, and uncooperative. Other research demonstrates that feminine facial traits, even on men, signal warmth, honesty, and cooperativeness.
The researchers put the stereotypes to the test in two experiments. First, they asked 43 heterosexual female Princeton students aged 18–23 to rate a set of white male faces on stereotypically masculine and feminine personality traits, such as warmth (feminine) and dominance (masculine). Then they recruited a group of 88 heterosexual women aged 18–69 to rate the same faces in an online survey. Overall, the women indicated that men with faces showing some feminine characteristics seemed as if they would be warmer, more nurturing, and gentler.
The college students and the online participants were also asked to rate 75 male faces on an attractiveness scale from 1 (extremely unattractive) to 9 (extremely attractive). The virtual faces were created from real men’s faces but were manipulated to look more masculine (with a larger and sharper jaw, for example) or more feminine (with a smaller chin, bigger eyes, and fuller lips). The women saw only faces—no additional visual cues such as hair, clothes, or accessories.
Women in both experiments rated the male faces with feminine traits as more attractive than the distinctly masculine faces. The more masculine the face became, the less attractive most women considered it and the less likely they were to view its owner as warm, nurturing, gentle, or any other stereotypically feminine trait, the study demonstrates.
Of course, the pattern doesn’t hold for every straight woman. “Some women like dominant-looking men, though many don’t,” Todorov says. Those women who value masculine personalities would be likely to rate the more masculine faces as more attractive, he argues. As Todorov says, “Individual preferences are highly heterogeneous”—some variation is expected.