Previous studies of facial attractiveness have focused on the ultimate causes of attraction to some faces and aversion to others. While our understanding of these ultimate causes has become increasingly sophisticated, our understanding of the proximate mechanisms that explain how preferences arise within particular individuals has not progressed beyond the generalised mere exposure effect (whereby previously seen faces, and those with similar characteristics, are preferred simply because they are familiar). Here we report a series of experiments demonstrating that the valence of our experiences with faces qualifies the effect of 'mere' familiarity. Preferences for the average of individual faces viewed under unpleasant conditions were decreased relative to preferences for the same averages when the individual faces had been viewed under more pleasant conditions. While the generalised mere exposure effect is often cited as evidence against evolutionary advantage accounts of face preferences (as it suggests familiar faces are preferred regardless of their adaptive characteristics), our findings suggest experiential factors facilitate adaptive face preferences.
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