Although some researchers have proposed that attractiveness is simply a byproduct of the visual system whereby average faces are preferred because they are more easily processed, others have found that caricaturing highly attractive faces (increasing the distance between average and “attractive” shape) makes them mathematically less average but more attractive. Consistent with the byproduct theory, prior research using visual adaptation paradigms has found that perceptions of both normality and attractiveness of certain face types (e.g. faces with altered eyespacing) increase with exposure. Here we use a visual adaptation paradigm to test how exposure to highly attractive and unattractive faces affects perceptions of normality and attractiveness. While highly attractive faces were rated as more normal after adaptation to other attractive faces, they were also rated as less attractive. Similarly, highly attractive faces were rated as less normal, but more attractive after exposure to unattractive faces. Our findings oppose the theory that averageness and attractiveness are equivalent and support the functional hypothesis that there are specific non-average characteristics, potentially cue of health and fertility, that are particularly attractive.
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