Bias towards beauty? blame the medial orbitofrontal corte

July 10, 2015

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, right? Well, the eye is only the very beginning, the “tip of the iceberg” in the processing of beautiful images.

The stereotype “beauty is good” refers to the subconscious association between physical beauty and socially desirable characteristics such as trustworthiness, honesty, and friendliness.  Why does this association exist? Is it a cultural phenomenon or a hard-wired function of the vastly complex and mysterious human brain?

Because of the pervasiveness of the bias toward beauty, 2 scientists decided to investigate*. Tsukiura and Cabeza found evidence that there is an area of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex that, in addition to other functions, processes both the perception of attractiveness and judgments of moral goodness.  The participants in the study were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they made attractiveness judgments about faces and goodness judgments about hypothetical actions. The investigators found that activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex increased as a function of both attractiveness and goodness ratings, whereas activity in a different  area, the insular cortex, decreased when a subject judged a person as attractive or an action as morally good. The medial orbitofrontal cortex has several functions including the processing of beauty and moral behavior.  The insular cortex processes negative experiences, namely social ones. There was a strong correlation in the activity elicited by attractiveness and goodness judgments in both of these areas of the brain. The investigators also found that when the activity in one of these regions is active, the other is relatively inactive. These findings may at least in part explain the neurological basis for the stereotype equating beauty and good. It appears that in the brain, the two qualities are inextricably linked, explaining why human beings posses a hard-wired bias towards beauty, automatically crediting an aesthetically pleasing face with other positive personality traits.

The social implications of this finding are astounding. It helps explain why good looking people may be hired more often, earn better salaries and why the better looking political candidate may win the race.

To me, these findings are depressing.  Aren’t we humans better than the sum of our “neuropsychobiological” parts?  The good news is that while the study found that the processing of beauty and good are intimately linked, it also found that there was a wide range of faces the subjects found to be attractive.  There was no one uniform standard for what is considered a beautiful face.  No need to strive for some impossible, magazine cover look;  we can rest easy that even on a neurological level, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

 

Sharon Goldstein, MD
Israel Medical Association board certified ophthalmologist
Wife and mother of four

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