Doctor Stu's Science Blog

The Science of Attraction: What makes a beautiful face?


It all started as a disagreement one evening. The men ended up vehemently defending their opinion that – yes, Keira Knightley did indeed have an attractive face. The women had a completely different point of view – I won’t repeat what they said, but it wasn’t pleasant (poor Keira).

Does Keira Knightley have an attractive face? Discuss…

How we got so heated about the facial features of Ms Knightley, remains a mystery. But some questions remained: Were the men wrong? Or were the women just jealous? Could there even be a logical reason why  so many men would sell their pet cat to have a date with her? (Of course I wouldn’t – I love my cat too much)…

What makes a Face Attractive?

Be honest now, there’s at least one celebrity that you have a secret crush on. It might be George Clooney or Judi Dench… But why exactly do you find them attractive? Is it well defined features? Clear skin? Nice Eyes? Or is there some mysterious ‘X’ factor…

UPDATE: We ran a podcast on the same subject. You can listen to it here.

Test yourself: Look at these faces, which are the most attractive?

You might think that unique and striking facial features make a someone drop-dead gorgeous – but this image shows that on the most-part they do not! An attractive face is an ‘average’ face: I’d bet that you think the faces on the right are the most attractive – and those faces aren’t even real – the faces on the right are computer generated ‘averages’ of several faces:

The most attractive faces are also the most ‘normal’ for our culture.

But that isn’t quite the whole story. It has been known for many years that the ideal face must also be symmetrical. Take a look at the image below and see if you agree…

Which face has been altered to be more beautiful and symmetrical? Right or Left?

Facial Symmetry and ‘Averageness’ – Why do we find them attractive?

The science behind attraction is a fascinating and well-researched field and some of the most up to date research on facial attraction has come out of Japan in recent years. In 2009, a team from Osaka University tried to work out what the most important factor was for facial beauty. Their conclusion – a perfectly beautiful face needed both symmetry and ‘averageness’!

But why do we get the hots for ‘average’ faces? The theory goes something like this: When choosing a partner to have children with, our natural instincts are to choose a healthy person – A fit and healthy partner is more likely to have ‘good genes’ and so will probably parent a healthy, beautiful and virtuous child.

On some primitive and subconscious level, when we see an unusual face we are programmed to see the person as ‘unhealthy’. This inbuilt prejudice seems to be common to all of us – regardless of culture or creed. We will always tend to prefer a ‘healthier’, more symmetrical and ‘average’ face.

But does a symmetrical face really mean a healthy body?

This controversial theory actually has quite a bit of evidence to back it up! Australian psychologist Gillian Rhodes co-authored  a ground-breaking study that compared facial symmetry with medical records. She discovered that the most beautiful faces actually belonged to people with the cleanest bill of health!

I guess some people have all the luck…

As it happens, men find Keira Knightley attractive because she has a very ‘average’ face.

Feel like you want to encourage a beautiful person today? Tell them they are blessed with fine genetics and good health!
Just try not to mention that they also have rather average and unremarkable face…
Thanks for reading – comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!


Explore More: – Psychology experiments about preferences for faces and voices

Science News – Has a great little summary on the determinants of facial attractiveness (aimed at Kids – so it’s quick and easy to read)

Beauty Check – An excellent site that covers all the science behind different aspects of beauty


Komori, M., Kawamura, S., & Ishihara, S. (2009). Averageness or symmetry: Which is more important for facial attractiveness? Acta Psychologica, 131 (2), 136-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2009.03.008

Rhodes, G. (2001). Do facial averageness and symmetry signal health? Evolution and Human Behavior, 22 (1), 31-46 DOI: 10.1016/S1090-5138(00)00060-X