April 19, 2010

Are mixed-race people more attractive?

This paper has received some attention in the media, so it is worthwhile to consider its thesis: that great attractiveness of mixed-race people is due to genetic heterosis.

From the paper:
Facial images were harvested from the social networking website facebook.com. These were collected according to social groups that the people submitting the images belonged to. People who were members of groups making reference to being of mixed race [eg ``mixed race and proud of it''](1) formed a mixed-race group (N . 483). People who were members of groups making reference to groups who were from geographical regions of the UK with minimal ethnic minorities (eg ``Cornish and proud of it'') formed a white group (N . 368). People who were members of groups that made reference to being Black and living in the UK (eg ``Black and brum'') or made reference to coming from parts of Africa (eg ``Gambian and proud'') formed a black group (N . 354).


Twenty white psychology students rated each face on its attractiveness on a 9-point scale (5 being of average attractiveness).
Before we consider the "Why" of the paper's title, it is worthwhile to consider whether the thesis itself "mixed-race people are perceived as more attractive" is supported by the evidence. I can think of several alternative explanations for the evidence:
  • There is no reason to think that "mixed-race" people represent black-white mixes. In the British context, "mixed-race" may also include white-South Asian or white-East Asian people.
  • There is no reason to think that white people from less cosmopolitan areas are equally attractive to white people from big cities. It's reasonable to assume that attractive people thrive in regions of high population density, since attractiveness is a social advantage: you will probably find more "hot" models, actors, PR people, waitresses, salesgirls, etc. in London than you will in Cornwall.
  • There is no reason to think that people of average attractiveness (for their respective races) mate to produce mixed-race offspring. Interracial marriage is not the norm (it occurs at a far lower rating than random mating would predict), thus there appears to be a real psychological impediment to the practice. It is not unreasonable to postulate that people are willing to mate interracially for a higher-than-average member of a different race, with the greater attractiveness serving to overcome this obstacle. In any case, the assumption that random whites and blacks mate to produce interracial offspring is not obvious.
  • There is no reason to think that people who join mixed-race groups on facebook are good representatives of mixed-race people in general. Non-normative individuals may have a positive, neutral, or negative attitude towards their ancestry, and it is reasonable that "happy" mixed-race people may be more likely to advertise the fact than "non-happy" ones, and that more attractive mixed-race people (representing more harmonious combinations) may be more likely to belong to the first category.
  • Finally, there is no reason to think that people who are of mixed-race have the same age as non-mixed people. Race mixing is on the rise both due to immigration and to changing societal norms, so there is probably a negative correlation between racial admixture and age. Thus, the finding of this study may be simply an artifact of the higher average age of the unmixed vs. the mixed groups.
Thus, I don't really think there is any reason to seek the "why" of a non-evident fact. But, it is interesting to consider the explanation for the supposed greater attractiveness of mixed-race people: genetic heterosis. The paper really offers no new evidence that heterosis has an effect on attractiveness.

It would be worthwhile to do a comprehensive study of race and attractiveness. Thankfully, we now possess reasonable genetic estimators of racial admixture and heterozygosity; hopefully someone will have the funds and will to use them.

Nonetheless the paper is useful because it reveals a real effect: what the explanation for this effect is remains to be seen.

Perception 39(1) 136 – 138

Why are mixed-race people perceived as more attractive?

Michael B Lewis


Previous, small scale, studies have suggested that people of mixed race are perceived as being more attractive than non-mixed-race people. Here, it is suggested that the reason for this is the genetic process of heterosis or hybrid vigour (ie cross-bred offspring have greater genetic fitness than pure-bred offspring). A random sample of 1205 black, white, and mixed-race faces was collected. These faces were then rated for their perceived attractiveness. There was a small but highly significant effect, with mixed-race faces, on average, being perceived as more attractive. This result is seen as a perceptual demonstration of heterosis in humans—a biological process that may have implications far beyond just attractiveness.



Jim Bowery said...

This sort of reminds me of an article that might be trumpeted in the post-Darwin press about footprints of man existing alongside dinosaurs.

There really is no need to debunk it from a scientific standpoint. Its obvious where its coming from.

Dragon Horse said...

Go to Latin America and Central Asia, find some mixed people (not hard) and test them for facial symmetry, height (compared to parent populations), and hip/waste ratio - breast size of women (especially compared to related parent populations, so Mongols/Turkics in Western Mongolia and China and Persians for Central Asians; Iberian, West Africans, and Amerindians for Latin Americans).

This should not be hard.

Measure African Americans that are heavily admixed vs average white Northwest Europeans and West Africans in the same fashion.

onur said...

Mongols/Turkics in Western Mongolia and China

I would say Mongols/Turkics in Mongolia (including Chinese Mongolia) and in the Russian territory immediately north of Mongolia (excluding Altaians, who are somewhat hybrid). Uyghurs in northwestern China should be included in hybrid Central Asian populations.

I would also include south Russians and Ukrainians, who genetically have very strong Sarmatian/Scythian roots, as a third parent population.

Dienekes said...

onur, just hit "Publish your Comment" once. If it doesn't go through just save your comment and look a couple of hours later to see if it has been published, to avoid duplicate (or octuplicate) comments.

onur said...

Dieneke, the reason why I delete so many of my comments is editing, not late publishing. Unfortunately, blog format requires you to delete and republish your comments (in the edited form) in order to edit your comments. That is why I prefer forum format, which allows you to edit your comments without deleting them, and even if you delete them they disappear from the forum without leaving a trace.

Dienekes said...

You can use a text editor to prepare your posts before submitting them.

onur said...

Sorry for the ugly mass of deleted posts. From now on, I will be more careful before submitting posts and will use a text editor while preparing them (as I did formerly).

terryt said...

And Polynesians are a mixed population, as shown by bhall's link here:


belenos said...

Dragon Horse:

You are suggesting that female attractiveness is merely an artifact of body shape and facial symmetry.

While I wouldn't argue thay these factors don't have an effect, it is clear that attractiveness is as much a social construct as an inherent quality. Otherwise standards of beauty would be constant, rather than variable over space, population and time. There is also room for individual subjective preference.

You aren't an evolutionary psychologist by any chance, are you? :-)

Dienekes is correct in identifying the sampling errors in this research, but even with a perfectly random sample, this research could only tell us about the standards of beauty held by an individual population or society.

miz RAND BLOWTON said...

Mixed-raced people are more are more attractive?
Compared to who?
Many true Blacks don't favor lighter people,nor do they like string or soft hair.
Most Whites normally like their own,even though they'll sleep with anybody.Both groups might like one 'special' person in another race,but not all the others,which is a comment I hear often. Asians well I don't know anything about them...they're just foreign.