Ever glanced at your partner and done a double take because you thought you were looking in a mirror? Okay, maybe not – but perhaps you’ve noticed certain similarities between your facial features. If so, you certainly aren’t alone, and a new study might be able to explain why, in some cases at least, opposites don’t attract.
New research from the University of Queensland, Australia, and the University of Stirling in Scotland, UK, found that in a speed dating situation, people with similar faces tended to find each other more attractive. The study was unique in that the 682 participants actually met each other in rounds of three-minute interactions, exactly like traditional in-person speed dating – other similar studies have had people look at faces on a computer screen.
After their speed dates, the participants were asked to rate each other based on whether they found each other’s faces attractive, and whether they perceived the other person to be “kind and understanding”.
A photograph of each participant was taken, to allow the researchers to perform a series of analyses to measure “facial averageness” – how close someone's facial structure is to the geometric average for their sex – “masculinity”, and both raw and sex-controlled facial similarity.
The study was led by University of Queensland PhD student Amy Zhao, who explained the findings in a statement seen by IFLScience.
“We found that participants rated partners who had geometrically average faces and faces similar to their own as more attractive. Participants also received higher facial attractiveness ratings from partners of the same ethnicity, compared to those from a different ethnicity.”
Around half of the speed dates were between partners of the same ethnicity.
“Interestingly, people with similar facial features rated each other as appearing more kind, regardless of ethnicity,” Zhao added.
While physical attraction isn’t the be-all and end-all of romantic relationships, it’s an important area for psychologists to study, as co-author Dr Anthony Lee explained in a separate statement: “Forming meaningful relationships with others is a fundamental human driver and understanding the mechanism of attraction can help facilitate or maintain romantic and sexual relationships.”
The fact that the results of these in-person observations chime with those of previous, lab-based studies is also notable.
“These findings address major limitations in past studies which involved participants rating a series of photographs or computer-generated faces,” said Zhao.
The study only included heterosexual participants, so it’s not clear whether these findings could be replicated in other populations. The authors also note some limitations to the metrics they used for the facial analysis and suggest that adding images of the participants’ side profiles, or even a 3D image, might produce a more comprehensive result.
For future work, the authors suggest it would be interesting to investigate how these facial preferences stack up when it comes to real relationships – since, as the paper points out, “Given that not everyone can satisfy their preferences, individuals must make compromises.”
But the results do go some way to explaining why you might feel a frisson when you come across someone who looks a little bit like you.
“Our findings suggest that faces that look similar spark a sense of kinship, causing people to feel comfort, familiarity and belonging with those who look like them,” concluded Zhao. “Better understanding of how people rate attractiveness, could assist with dating and forming romantic relationships.”
The study is published in Evolution and Human Behavior.