The Beautiful Science of Ugliness Reveals Ugly Truths About How we Judge Others

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This is a long article with tonnes of research and explanations for factors related to the concept of ugly. I have detailed research insights on ugliness, beauty standards, our perception of beauty, and the concept of attractiveness. Oh, and I have a special message for you at the end.

Scroll all the way to the bottom for a summary. Although, I highly recommend you look at the science to understand this human condition of judging beauty (or the lack of it).

We are a product of evolution on Earth. Evolution promises us one thing: Variation. Variation in how we appear; how we think; how we behave. Everything about being ugly and beautiful lies in this fact. This variation allows us to have preferences, likes, and dislikes.

Our brains are capable of making evaluations, attaching emotions to people, and passing judgment. These allow us to consider other people or objects as attractive or unattractive. In fact, it allows us to hold our own standards for beauty and ugliness.



2 highlights on what is considered ugly

There are two points which deserve to be highlighted before we get to the science surrounding perceiving attractiveness.

  1. Ugliness is an abstraction. This means that we can go beyond one category of features (physical) or personality (traits, attitudes), intelligence/skill (cognitive capacities) and deem something ugly or not ugly. A handsome person with a stinking attitude toward animals could be perceived as ugly. The addition of information such as ‘attitude toward animals’ can override one’s initial perception of beauty.
  2. Beauty and Ugliness could both co-exist depending on the granularity or how deep we look. One could be holistically ugly because of their malicious nature in spite of having sexually desirable physical features and mannerisms. Ugliness may be in the eye of the beholder, but it is also in the breadth of characteristics one considers for evaluation.


Sample opinions on what is ugly

To see what people have to say about ugliness, I asked a simple question – What is ugliness? Here are 3 typical responses I got.

I think ‘ugly’ is a subjective word – what and who I find attractive maybe someone or something another person might not. And people’s perceptions of ugly and pretty are a product of decades and centuries of conditioning of what they see in films, on TV, in magazines, which all cater to the male gaze.

Kanksha Raina, 25, writer


I rarely find things ugly. It’s mostly when I do not like the person.

Anonymous, 25, corporate wh*re


Anything that is decadent and smelly (like rotting carcasses) or visually too perfect and glossy (like Barbies).

Rohini Shukla, 27, PhD student studying religion

Whether or not you agree with the precise nature of these quotes, they highlight some popularly addressed factors about ugliness. They show the breadth of what ugly means to people. Let us fully acknowledge the subjective nature and move toward what we know objectively.

These are the common themes seen in personal beliefs and opinions on ugliness.

  • It is subjective
  • Loaded with personal preference
  • Culture and media shape the concept of beauty
  • It has an emotional valence


Research on ugliness – we do judge others as ugly or attractive

What does science say about being ugly? Let us look at a mixed bag of research insights drawn from various perspectives. We will look at some global insights at the end of this article.

The first question we should ask is this – Where does this all begin? Are we born to judge ugliness?

It seems like we are born with the ability to judge ugliness negatively… or something which seems like that. Let us explore the research.

Research shows (2016) that 8-12-year-old children find attractive faces more trustworthy. In this experiment, both children and adults judged faces on 2 measures – trustworthiness & attractiveness. The data shows that both groups of people consistently deem attractive faces as trustworthy and vice-versa. Moreover, as the participants’ age increased, the closer they got to how adults judged. This seems obvious – our understanding of beauty and trust grows over our lifespan. Trustworthiness & attractiveness judgments by female children were more consistent with adults as compared to male children.

What does this show us? It shows us that we have a deeply embedded system to assess facial traits (physical facial attractiveness) and use them to judge strangers on unrelated traits like trustworthiness. The consistency over time shows that there may be at least 2 powerful factors at play – one, something reinforces the existing trustworthiness & attractiveness mapping and two, the system for using visual facial cues to pass judgments is innate and develops on its own.

There is more research which supports the idea that we have an inbuilt judgment system which uses facial cues as inputs. This paper from 1987 shows something very interesting. Two-three-month-old and six-eight-month-old toddlers have a preference for faces which are more attractive as judged by adults. This challenges the modern belief that culture & media shape what is considered attractive. But does it?

The paper was published in 1987. Modern radical changes in how people think could play a stronger role in how ADULTS perceive attractiveness. Social factors could override inborn tendencies, albeit with additional effort.

One profound finding is that humans can judge facial appearance as trustworthy before conscious awareness of facial characteristics. If nothing else, this shows that humans can evaluate facial appearances automatically and unconsciously. Let’s acknowledge the reality here – humans judge, and they can do this without any self-awareness.

An older finding shows that pre-schoolers can discriminate between adult-judged attractive and unattractive faces. An extension of their original experiment shows that the beauty stereotype is exhibited by preschoolers.

The beauty stereotype is that attractive people are judged to be smarter, more skilled, and prosocial while unattractive people are judged to be dumber and exhibit more anti-social behavior. The experiment showed that children saw other attractive children as potential friends and demonstrated a dislike for unattractive children.

Whether we like it or not, research shows that humans have an innate ability to discriminate between attractive and unattractive faces. Click To Tweet


What is ugliness? What can we do to understand the ugly aesthetic?

This is a hard question to answer and an even harder question to draw any meaningful socially relevant insights. Most of the research does not deal with ugliness per se. The research deals with judgments of attractiveness & unattractiveness.

Ugliness is hard to define, so research tends to use components (facial features, expressions, self-judgments, etc.) of this ‘gestalt’ of a word called ugliness. The other common approach is to assume your own personal definition of ugliness & attractiveness to assess empirically.

We can look at it from multiple angles. Some common perspectives on ugly & beautiful are:

  • A personal narrative
  • A perceiver’s narrative
  • A socio-cultural construct
  • A neuro-biological abstraction
  • A mental abstraction
  • A semantic correlation

In one neurobiological study on beauty, scientists looked at the processing of 2 types of aesthetics – facial and moral. They found that evaluating physical and moral beauty (or ugliness) recruit a common network of brain regions – middle occipital gyrus (MOG) and medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). Additionally, the bilateral insular cortex was involved specifically in processing ‘ugly.’

Research shows that Moral and Physical Aesthetics have a common denominator. One influences the other. Shallow attractiveness can inform moral implications and moral judgments can inform shallow attractiveness. Click To Tweet


A startling new discovery on ugliness

If we take the last approach of semantic correlations, we can look at how people subjectively talk about ugliness and still have an objective underpinning to it. Let us look at 2 such approaches:

Word2Vec for the meaning of ugly:

Word2Vec is a clever algorithmic way to understand words. Without getting into the technical side (which I totally understand, btw :p), Word2Vec converts a word into a numerical form which is nicely placed in a 3-dimensional vector space. The cool thing is that similar words are placed close to each other. Imagine a graph, with an X, Y, and Z axis. From all the English words, ‘ugly’ will have a specific unique location on the graph. When we look at words which are located near ‘ugly,’ we get contextually similar, analogous, and semantically related words.

Here are a few words which are similar to ugly as per the word2vec algorithm:

The psychology of ugliness, what and who is ugly

As you see, the connotations of ugly range from negative words like nasty, creepy, assoholic, filthy, and obnoxious to positive words like cute and sexy.

These are semantic relationships. Simply put, these words are close relatives of the word ugly as seen in the human usage of words within a context. They do not necessarily represent how language is designed or what a dictionary says.

Wordnet (Synset) for the meaning of ugly:

Synset is another corpus which classifies and maps words based on their semantic and lexical relationships. The relationships are relatively less abstract than what we find using word2vec.

Here are a few words which are similar to ugly based on wordnet’s algorithm:

What is ugly? What does ugly mean?

As per the WordNet database, ugly relates to one’s worth, horror, slime, and has overtones of menace. The meanings range from ‘displeasing to our senses’ to ‘profound horror.’


Now here is the startling discovery. None of these objective and (slightly) abstract ways to understand the meaning of ugly point toward the word unattractive.

The fact that the word ugly is largely unrelated to the word unattractive may seem intuitive at first but it isn’t. Research mostly focuses on attractive or not attractive. Ugliness is a more nuanced term humans use in different contexts. (This information is new and first published in this article. To the best of my knowledge, no peer-reviewed publication exists which makes this claim).

Ugliness is, in fact, quite unrelated to how and why humans classify people as attractive or unattractive.

With this information, we can draw a very profound conclusion. Being ugly does not mean you are unattractive to others or to yourself. Being unattractive also does not mean you are ugly. Ugliness, as human judgment, is highly contextual. One can also be ugly and attractive at the same time.

Artificial Intelligence techniques for language processing show that ugly is not equal to unattractive. In fact, they seem unrelated to each other. Who would've thought? Click To Tweet

This section of the article is only a primary exploration. I might make another post which tests this new information for validity and reliability.


How does age, sex, gender, cohorts, etc. affect our perception of ugliness and beauty?

One important study looks at these variables and tests 4 meaningful hypotheses.

  1. The expertise hypothesis – older people (all kinds) have more experience and as a result, they have seen more faces/bodies than younger people. Adults have been both – adult & young. Youngsters have only been young. As a result, youngsters would have the freshest memories of young people and older people will have a more distributed ‘freshness’ of different type of faces. This hypothesis predicts that young/less-experienced people will find younger faces more attractive and older people will find all types of faces equally attractive/unattractive.
  2. The crone hypothesis – women who look old are viewed more negatively than young women. The word crone used to mean ‘wise-old woman’ which, over the years, got negative attributes and now means ‘ugly old women.’ This sort of stereotyping is often seen in media and culture. Make-up industries may pinch a nerve and reinforce this stereotype too. This may also be perpetuated with adopting someone else’s beliefs such as youth is more desirable in women than in men. This hypothesis predicts that older women are rated least attractive from a pool of mixed faces.
  3. Cohort hypothesis – old and young people have grown up in different ages, contexts, influences, and cultures. This may influence what they find attractive or ugly. The hypothesis predicts that 2 cohorts (young and old) can call a person attractive but rank their attractiveness differently.
  4. The similarity/dissimilarity hypothesis – people judge attractiveness or ugliness based on how similar or dissimilar others are as compared to themselves. Based on one’s point of view – being similar or dissimilar to oneself can be treated as ugly or attractive. This hypothesis predicts that similarity has an effect on judging attractiveness. There are 4 outcomes:
    1. You find someone similar to you ugly/unattractive
    2. You find someone similar to you attractive
    3. You find someone dissimilar to you ugly/unattractive
    4. You find someone dissimilar to you attractive.

The study found evidence in support of the expertise hypothesis. This means that young people judge young people to be more attractive than older people, and older people judge all sorts of people as equally attractive.

They also found evidence to support the crone hypothesis. They observed that older women had the lowest attractiveness rating.

They did not find any support for the cohort and similarity hypothesis.

This study was published in 2011 with both male & female subjects from multiple age groups and the subjects were asked to judge both male and female faces of multiple age groups.


What characteristics go into making someone ugly?

Well, this an even harder question to answer because ugliness is subjective, the research assumes subjective interpretations in many studies, and the world is full of variations. Look back into the original premise of the article – evolution promises variations. People develop kinks of all sorts; they fixate on a variety of components as well as holistic perceptions to call someone attractive or ugly. It will be insane to list all attributes which can be classified as ugly or not ugly.

So far, all we have is the natural language processing methodology to truly understand what humans mean by ugly. Refer to the previous sections to see the connotations of ugly.


Does the media affect beauty standards and body image?

Some of you will say Yes. Some of you will say No. Some of you will not care. Some of you might say it’s complex. Well, it is complex indeed. We are going to cover a broad perspective here which encompasses many core aspects of media – the social sharing, the images, the social validation via likes, advertisements, etc.

We’ll first set a baseline. Back in 1980, a series of experiments showed that attractive women seen on television influence the perceived attractiveness of an ‘average’ woman seen later. Male participants rated the average women lower after viewing attractive women on screen. This was then compared to a control group. The results indicated that the comparison between the average woman and the attractive women on T.V. amplified the difference in attractiveness which led to rating the average woman lower.

The key takeaway from this study is that it was back in 1980. There was no Facebook, no Buzzfeed, no Reddit, no nothing remotely close to what we call the modern internet culture. This was a time when people were exposed to far lesser human bodies in terms of images. Far, Far lesser. The conditions were different back then. Some of us might even say that they were the dark ages. Humans have socially grown.

So does this influence of media say anything?

It does. Modern research shows that media influences body image for a large portion of humankind. Or to be more precise, media worsens body image satisfaction for those who are vulnerable.

Researchers showed that gay and straight men have body image concerns based on the perceived influence of media. Gay men demonstrated a higher level of body-image related anxiety, dissatisfaction with one’s body, and the desire to be thin than comparable straight men. This study found that gay men were more vulnerable to the influence of media. The important aspect of this research is that the researchers measured the perceived influence of media. That means the effects of media depended on what people believe about the effect of media (which can range from low to high effect). It does not account for the actual influence of media on beauty standards.

Boys and girls between the ages 8 years and 11 years also have eating and body image related issues which may be mediated by media. In this study, the researchers observed internalization of the influence in girls (and not boys). Media influence partly contributed (30 percent of variance) to body dissatisfaction in girls. The influence was far weaker in boys.

Researchers acknowledge that the media conveys information about beauty standards, ideals, expectations, etc. However, they also note that the prevalence of such information and norms in a sociocultural context does not equate to feeling the pressure to adhere to those norms or the internalization of that information. Furthermore, research also demonstrates that media literacy can shield women from internalizing beauty standards after exposure to beauty standards.

The thin ideal has been a thing, probably. People think that thin is attractive. A meta-analysis found that internalization, body awareness, and perceived pressure play a role in judging one’s body. They found that perceived pressure and internalization had a stronger negative effect on body image than awareness.

The point is to know that there is a contextual and differential influence of media on body image. Studies report that perceived influence moderates this effect to an extent. It means that the belief about the role media plays makes a difference. These beliefs could range from ‘media has no influence on my standards’ to ‘I follow all trends and adhere to new quirks like artificially blown up lips.’

These studies show that we might be unnecessarily blaming too much on the influence of media on body image, and thereby perception of your own attractiveness. Our attitudes and perceptions matter in how social media and social beauty ideals affect our own image.

Oh well, it’s time for a meme.

You aren't ugly and you can be attractive to others.
I encourage an attitude and perception change instead of letting media influence you:) This is a test to see if you are shielded from the influence of memes.
The media is not the culprit in challenging your beauty. It has a small influence on body image and beauty standards, but your perception and attitude toward yourself have a bigger influence. Click To Tweet


Global highlights from research on attractiveness, aesthetic perception, and ugliness (TL;DR)

We can draw some global insights:

  1. Ugliness is a construct with multiple connotations which are subjective.
  2. Ugliness is not always in the eye of the beholder; toddlers can differentiate between attractive and not attractive. They also reliably match how adults rate attractiveness. This shows that we pass judgment way before the world and our experiences have a chance to influence us.
  3. It doesn’t take research to tell you that being mean and making others feel bad about their physical attributes is wrong.
  4. Judgments of attractiveness can be unconscious and below self-awareness.
  5. People of all ages demonstrate a change in perception in one or more areas (trustworthiness, for example) based on the visual features of a person.
  6. Moral and physical aesthetics have a common denominator. That means one might influence the other. Moral implications fuel superficial attraction and shallow attraction drives moral judgments. That’s just how it is.
  7. Certain socio-cultural beliefs about the influence of media and norms may be overstated as research points toward innate primeval systems in the brain which process information that leads to judging beauty. Our beliefs and vulnerability moderates the influence of media on beauty.
  8. The beauty stereotype is valid and has research support – people tend to think attractive people have other positive traits and unattractive people have other negative traits. This can also be interpreted the other way – negative traits can lead to evaluating someone as ugly and positive traits can lead to evaluating as attractive.
  9. Some research may counter some popular beliefs and notions; some may make you uncomfortable; some may reinforce a belief. But, scientific research makes a few important points about beauty. We are here to take a look at a different picture.
  10. Ugliness does not mean unattractive nor does being unattractive imply being ugly within a context. We often use both words interchangeably but they do not mean the same. Ugly =/= unattractive.

Judging attractiveness is one thing, everyone can have preferences. Mistreating, discriminating, and creating deliberate sources of hurt feelings is not ok, it is never ok. Judging (based on your preference) is not the same as passing judgment with negative intent.

The truth is, this need not be difficult. Judging attractiveness need not be a war or a source of conflict. Remember – evolution promises variety – it is the variety of people, variety in shapes and sizes, variety of likes and dislikes. That variety makes our species a beautiful one.


‘Am I ugly?’ A direct note to you

Have you ever asked yourself why you are ugly or if God or genes made you ugly? If yes, this short section is for you. Do you really feel ugly and unattractive? I’m here to tell you that you aren’t. You are attractive and beautiful. <3 And, here is why. 🙂

Some people have a set of certain physical features we term ‘beautiful,’ some we call ‘handsome,’ some we call ‘ugly.’ Variation in looks enables us to call things beautiful or ugly. As you have seen in the previous sections, there is no universal ‘ugly feature’ or ‘attractive feature.’

Ugliness is a label, a human construct. Which means, no one made you or anyone ugly. Ugly is just a description of how some of us see others and ourselves. The question ‘am I ugly?’ has no objective answer.

Ugliness is just a relative term, people don’t even agree on what ugly is. If you keep scrolling, you can read what the research says.

I don’t know how you look, nor do I know why you feel that you are ugly. But, you are a product of evolution and thus, you vary from others. It depends on you whether you want to call yourself ugly or beautiful.

Judge only by your own standards, not someone else’s. With that, you can choose to see yourself as ugly or pretty/beautiful.

We can’t do much about some features of our body. Once you accept what is unchangeable, you can work on what is changeable. That is health, personality, your point of view, muscles, hair, etc. That’s for you to be creative and call yourself ‘not ugly’ by your own standard.

Judge your beauty by your own standards. Once you accept what is unchangeable, work on things you can change and improve. That should inform your own beauty. Click To Tweet

So now, let’s assume you are not ugly.

That being said, have a great day you beautiful person!


References:

Carper TL, E. al. (2010). Relations among media influence, body image, eating concerns, and sexual orientation in men: A preliminary investigation. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved March 31, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20739233

Cusumano, D. L., & Thompson, J. K. (2001). Media influence and body image in 8-11-year-old boys and girls: a preliminary report on the multidimensional media influence scale. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved March 31, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11135331

Foos, P. W., & Clark, M. C. (2011). Adult age and gender differences in perceptions of facial attractiveness: beauty is in the eye of the older beholder. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved March 31, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21675545

Luo Q, E. al. (2019). The neural correlates of integrated aesthetics between moral and facial beauty. – PubMed – NCBI. Retrieved March 31, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30760800

Ma, F., Xu, F., & Luo, X. (2016). Children’s Facial Trustworthiness Judgments: Agreement and Relationship with Facial Attractiveness. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00499

Langlois, J. H., Roggman, L. A., Casey, R. J., Ritter, J. M., Rieser-Danner, L. A., & Jenkins, V. Y. (1987). Infant preferences for attractive faces: Rudiments of a stereotype? Developmental Psychology, 23(3), 363-369.

Alexander Todorov, Manish Pakrashi, and Nikolaas N. Oosterhof (2009). Evaluating Faces on Trustworthiness After Minimal Time Exposure. Social Cognition: Vol. 27, No. 6, pp. 813-833.

Dion, K. K. (1973). Young children’s stereotyping of facial attractiveness. Developmental Psychology, 9(2), 183-188.

Kenrick, D. T., & Gutierres, S. E. (1980). Contrast effects and judgments of physical attractiveness: When beauty becomes a social problem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(1), 131-140.

Cash, T. F. (2005). The influence of sociocultural factors on body image: Searching for constructs. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12(4), 438-442.

Cafri, G., Yamamiya, Y., Brannick, M., & Thompson, J. K. (2005). The influence of sociocultural factors on body image: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12(4), 421-433.

Gutiérrez-García, A., Beltrán, D., & Calvo, M. (2019). Facial attractiveness impressions precede trustworthiness inferences: lower detection thresholds and faster decision latencies, Cognition and Emotion33(2), 378-385.


P.S. ICYMI, ugliness is subjective; most of the research uses behavioral indications for evaluating attractiveness or subjective interpretations of what is ugly and that is then analyzed in controlled conditions.

P.P.S. You have to accept some unchangeable aspects about yourself and work on things you can change. That is if you want to change anything. There is no hard and fast beauty standard.

P.P.P.S. As I’ve declared previously, I stumbled upon new information which has practical implications while doing my research for this article. I thought of using the natural language processing methodology to understand ugly, and to my surprise, I found out something new. The information is – ‘Based on the human usage of the word ugly, it seems that being attractive and unattractive is moot.’ Please give due credit for this with a citation or a link to this post:) I support open science so feel free to share this information as much as you’d like.

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4 thoughts on “The Beautiful Science of Ugliness Reveals Ugly Truths About How we Judge Others”

  1. Well, I was just scrolling through random articles and found this one. Going through this was an absolute pleasure. Now according to my standards, you totally are a beautiful person!

    Reply
  2. May I simply just say what a comfort to discover somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about on the net. You definitely realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important. A lot more people must check this out and understand this side of your story. I was surprised that you are not more popular because you most certainly possess the gift.

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