“Beauty is skin-deep” the saying goes, and it seems most people agree when they describe what they consider most beautiful in a person.
Confidence, kindness, happiness, dignity and intelligence all ranked in the top five out of 19 attributes that people said make the opposite and same sex beautiful.
Physical attributes like facial appearance, body weight and shape, and sexiness come much lower in the rankings of a recent Ipsos Global Advisor survey of more than 18,000 people across 27 countries.
Strength was the only physical attribute in the top 10 for what women considered beautiful in men. For how men view women – strength, sexiness and facial appearance – ranked at the bottom of the top 10 traits.
But, if the business of improving your looks is such a big business, then why do we place less importance on physical traits when it comes to what we consider beautiful?
Or, is there more to this than what meets the eye?
Difference between thinking & experiencing
Namika Sagara, president of Ipsos’ Behavioral Science Center, says we use different processes in our brain when we think of what characteristics matter versus what matters when we experience things.
“When we think of it, we tend to be more logical and rational, and also cognizant of what others might think of what we have to say,” said Sagara. “But when we experience, we tend to skip those logical and rational processes.”
Greg Gwiasda, behavioral scientist & VP at Ipsos’ Behavioral Science Center, adds that when things seem distant, we tend to think more abstractly, but when we are close to doing something, we think more concretely.
“When we talk to people about what they want in a partner, we are in a more abstract mindset – so the general traits are more likely to be salient,” said Gwiasda. “When we are actually choosing a partner, this is a very immediate need and we think in much more concrete terms – she’s got a nice smile, figure; he’s got good eyes, abs.”
Appearing beautiful vs. staying beautiful
There’s also a difference between what we initially view as beautiful when we meet someone and what keeps them as beautiful in our eyes, according to Carla Flamer, president of marketing, Ipsos Canada, who’s worked with some of the world’s biggest beauty brands.
“The physical aspects, features, body type, facial balance – that gets positive first attention,” said Flamer. “What keeps someone looking beautiful in our eyes is intrinsic.”
“One is more immediate/visceral, in terms of creating an impression, and the other longer lasting,” said Flamer suggesting both are equally important elements of beauty – the physical and non-physical.
“No matter how physically gorgeous someone is, if they are a rotten person, they will not appear beautiful to us for long.”
Sagara backed this sentiment by saying that attraction can go through a journey and change over time.
“For example, the most salient attraction you might recall right when you met your partner is a physical attraction [like] how pretty his or her eyes were,” said Sagara. “What you think most attractive about your partner now may be the confidence he or she has.”
This is not because you think the eyes of your partner are no longer attractive, Sagara explains, but more that you have developed a stronger attraction to their confidence after spending more time with them.
What’s socially acceptable?
But given the popularity of current dating apps where you can swipe through potential partners based on their looks, the experts agreed there could be an element of people wanting to give socially desirable answers in order not to appear shallow.
Physical traits like hair styling, youthfulness and body weight and shape were among eight of the last nine characteristics that made men beautiful to women. Similarly, seven of last 10 attributes that made women beautiful to men were physical ones.
Sagara said that when we report what makes a person beautiful, we – consciously or unconsciously – tend to align with what we think should make a person beautiful, which can be heavily influenced by our macro and micro cultures.
But Colin Strong, global head of Behavioral Science at Ipsos, argues that giving more importance to physical attributes of beauty can be misleading, because it is difficult to really understand why we are attracted to another.
He points to the fact that the current survey’s findings are similar to one done by Ipsos for Dove’s Real Beauty campaign in 2004.
“Since 2004 there has been an explosion in online dating – and a lot of hand-wringing over the way in which we are making increasingly superficial decisions over who we want to date,” said Strong.
“Maybe this shows that in actual fact, despite this, we are all still looking for qualities in our partners that will lead to love, not just a hot date.”