Thursday, August 22, 2013

Can You Judge Beauty?

Can You Judge Beauty? Oh! Really?

Yesterday I was forwarded a journal article by a colleague of mine to ask for my opinion of it. The article was an interesting study about biases by doctors in judging the esthetics of a patient, in simple words, in judging whether the patients face was beautiful or not. Now there is an old aphorism which says beauty is in the eye of the beholder or in Plato the Greek philosopher’s words- "We behold beauty with the eye of the mind" a beautiful little explanation of why we see what we see. Till recently, with the absence of effective ways to judge beauty our idea of what we would call “beautiful” was more subjective than objective- often involving snap judgments and wolf whistles as a sign of appreciation- but the development of aesthetic analysis software has the made the job of comparing individual beauty to a standardized ideal beauty easier- like comparing your face to some beautiful person you know - say Monica Belluci and getting a result based on the differences (in percentages) between the faces of you two to see how beautiful you are rank wise.

 Of course, as walking, thinking human beings and not mindless calculating machines each of us have different opinions on what constitutes beauty and we don’t follow the standardized ideal of a software program. Which in fact explains all those hopelessly mismatched happy couples we see wandering around the shopping malls holding hands. "What does he see in her? And what does he have that I don’t have?" are the often heard anguished questions for which there is no right answer. It happens, just happens was the explanation we were giving till now. But now this study explains a bit about the reasons for why we make subjective decisions in judging beauty- by blaming it on human errors and biases.

The current study (Photos vs silhouettes for evaluation of profile esthetics by Matheus Melo Pithona; Iane Souza Nery Silvab; Published Online: August 19, 2013- The EH Angle Education and Research Foundation) And a similar study published earlier both try to show the evidence of such bias. The study is simple- it shows a series of photographs of faces of people from the very beautiful to the not-so beautiful to a group of volunteer judges and the same photographs with all the details blanked out except for the silhouettes to the same group and they are asked to analyze which ones are beautiful and which ones are not. This is because the examiners wanted to prove that there are two different ways of judging faces- one set of people believe that a pleasing face with good esthetic's is because of many different factors which can only be judged from complete photographs while the other group believe that using blanked-out silhouettes removes all the distractions from a patients face and allows us to judge only the outline of a face to see whether it looks beautiful or not - a simplified method of decision to avoid examiners own preferences and biases regarding hair, complexion and make-up.

 The examiners achieve a high degree of correct results in the silhouettes with faces blanked out (in the 90 the percentages) but in the case of the full photographs they achieve only results in the 70th percentages which is explained by the authors of the study as subjective bias based on distracting factors in the face. For example- looking at someone with high cheek bones, a perky little nose and a somewhat thin and protruding lips in the full photo- the examiners took an overall view that the lips did not look so out of place when seen in the face because the nose and cheek bones attracted attention and dominated the overall look diverting us from the deficiency of the lip. In other words photographs made us judge beauty of the overall face and to be more forgiving of minor lapses here and there while silhouettes made us stricter and have a higher standard of beauty.

So the study concludes by saying that human sympathies should be removed when judging beauty and strict standards should be applied by comparing our faces to an ideal beauty standard as done by computer software. Put simply- humans are prone to biases and computers are better- they don’t fall for beauty because they are strict officers. When someone is ugly- a computer will say without mercy that they are ugly- but we humans try to find beauty even in that ugly face - so don’t trust human judgment. This is the actual conclusion of the study- though they have put it in more polite language- but just wordplay you know. 

And so I e-mailed my friend back with the opinion that even though I agree with the overall results of the study that human judges are prone to biases especially when seeing full photographs, I have to disagree with some of the conclusions drawn from the results. As someone who works in the esthetic's field I have occasionally been called on to officiate as a judge in beauty pageants and I remember that most of the winners were judged on a variety of parameters like poise and posture and overall pleasing faces rather than on a strict application of aesthetic rules and measurement of the tip of the nose to the tip of the chin to see if they fall in the same straight line. In fact most winners were selected as they walked down the ramp towards the judges and even before they could approach near enough to clearly scrutinize their faces and make a decision.

So we have to agree that humans have different ideas of beauty and as long as there is an overall sense of pleasantness about the face and facial harmony with no especially obvious defect- surgical intervention is not recommended. Finally, in my view, the true portrayal of what we see and how we interpret beauty is based on instinct rather than on education and expert analysis.  We instinctively feel that someone is either beautiful or not and others judgment - including that of an infallible software program rarely changes our opinion. In the end, beauty is a gut feel and not based on any rating system. And the only true connoisseurs of beauty are the ones found sitting on parapet walls or lounging around street corners - wolf-whistling impartially at every girl who passes by regardless of her facial attractiveness or aesthetic ratings, don’t you agree?


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