This study was conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Procter & Gamble Beauty & Grooming, Procter & Gamble Cosmetics, and the Department of Computer Sciences.

Excerpt from study abstract

Research on the evolution of signaling has shown that animals frequently alter visual features, including color cues, to attract, intimidate or protect themselves from conspecifics. Humans engage in conscious manipulation of visual signals using cultural tools in real time rather than genetic changes over evolutionary time. Here, we investigate one tool, the use of color cosmetics. In two studies, we asked viewers to rate the same female faces with or without color cosmetics, and we varied the style of makeup from minimal (natural), to moderate (professional), to dramatic (glamorous).

Models without makeup and with natural, professional and glamorous makeup.
Models without makeup and with natural, professional and glamorous makeup.

The results suggest that cosmetics can create supernormal facial stimuli, and that one way they may do so is by exaggerating cues to sexual dimorphism. Our results provide evidence that judgments of facial trustworthiness and attractiveness are at least partially separable, that beauty has a significant positive effect on judgment of competence, a universal dimension of social cognition, but has a more nuanced effect on the other universal dimension of social warmth, and that the extended phenotype significantly influences perception of biologically important signals at first glance and at longer inspection.


Our results have a number of implications. As predicted, makeup had significant positive effects on ratings of female facial attractiveness at brief and longer inspection times. Ratings of competence increased significantly with makeup look tested on first glance and longer inspection. Effects were weaker and more variable for ratings of likability and trustworthiness, although generally positive.

Social psychologists have suggested that social warmth and social competence represent two universal dimensions of social perception by which we evaluate individuals and groups, with warmth capturing traits related to social cooperation, and power/competence capturing cues relevant to advantage in social competition, such as status and dominance. Here we show a robust and positive effect of increased beauty on social power/competence and a generally positive but more nuanced and variable effect on social warmth.

Past studies have shown that attractive people are expected to do better on the job, in school, and in life – and are treated that way – by being agreed with, deferred to, helped, and granted larger personal space. In a recent experimental study using a task for which physical attractiveness did not improve productivity, researchers demonstrated conclusively that employers expect physically attractive workers to perform better at their jobs and be more competent.

But, as sociologists Webster and Driskell noted when first proposing the idea of beauty as status, there are important differences between attractiveness and other status characteristics such as race or sex: beauty is a malleable characteristic. They predicted that, given the powerful effect of status, “attractiveness will assume increasing significance as other characteristics such as race and sex fall into disuse.” We suggest that attractiveness has assumed increasing significance, and will continue to do so as long as beauty remains an often unconscious proxy for status and ability.

The beauty halo effect has been called the “what is beautiful is good” effect. In our study, makeup increased inferences of warmth and cooperation (likability and trustworthiness) when faces were presented very briefly, but did not always do so on longer inspection. In general, there is less agreement about whether beauty invariably signals social cooperation, with some studies suggesting that there is a ”dark side” to beauty characterized by vanity, immodesty, or greater likelihood to cheat on a partner. Our findings suggest that it may be fruitful to disentangle the effects of beauty from beauty enhancement, or phenotype from extended phenotype here. It may be that natural beauty or natural appearing beauty leads to positive inferences of social cooperation, where more obvious beauty enhancement may lead to neutral or even negative inferences. Finally, our results provide additional evidence that judgments of facial trustworthiness and facial attractiveness are at least partially separable; the highest contrast makeup (glamorous) increased attractiveness significantly while at the same time decreasing judgments of trustworthiness.

Our study looked at one potential source of the cosmetics effect on face perception, increasing luminance contrast between the features (eyes and lips) and the surrounding skin, and looked for the first time at luminance contrast in African American and Hispanic faces. We found that cosmetics increased luminance contrast by significantly darkening the eyes and lips. Skin was neither significantly lightened nor darkened. However, luminance contrast effects for our natural look compared to a face without makeup was only marginally significant. It is likely that cosmetics induced image changes other than changes in luminance contrast contributed to our effects. These include possible changes in the smoothness of skin tone, in the redness of skin color or lip color, and in shading that accentuates the cheekbones. Previous research has shown that makeup can improve skin appearance, evenness, and texture to appear healthier, fertile, and youthful and that skin and lip color can contribute significantly to perception of sex typicality and attractiveness, with lip redness enhancing femininity and attractiveness of female Caucasian faces.

Finally, our study included only North American subjects; we do not know if such effects will be found in subjects from other cultures*.

In sum, we show that faces with cosmetics engage both fast, reflexive processes, and more deliberative conscious processes. The fast, automatic effects are uniformly strong and positive for all outcomes. In situations where a perceiver is under a high cognitive load or under time pressure, he or she is more likely to rely on such automatic judgments for decision-making. Facial images appear on ballots, job applications, websites and dating sites. Our results underscore the malleability of judgments derived from facial images of a single individual at zero acquaintance, judgments that can be highly consequential. When inferring trustworthiness, likeability, or competence from an image, we are influenced significantly not only by the attractiveness of the inherited phenotype but by the effects of the “extended phenotype,” in this case, makeup.

*Do you think these findings would hold up in Europe?

Read the full Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals report.

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