What Are Attractive Faces Across Cultures?

Are attractive faces are similar or different across cultures? Many evolutionary biologists and psychologists believe that certain features of human faces are universally attractive for mating in all societies.

This universality might be due to human biological roots. This is a valid assumption because the appearances of men and women have a significant evolutionary role in the attraction of mates for greater reproductive success (see more elsewhere).

Similarities in Attractive Faces Across Societies

Studies have found many cross-cultural similarities in the perception of attractive facial characteristics. For example, average facial qualities and female “neotenous” facial features are rated as attractive by Americans, Russians, Brazilians, Paraguayan Indians, and Venezuelan Indians when they look at the facial photographs of people from the United States, Brazil, and Paraguayan Indians (Jones & Hill, 1993).

Another study revealed that across many cultural samples, such as African Americans and European Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Taiwanese, cultural conceptions of the beautiful face vary remarkably little. For example, many people in several cultural groups consider the faces of a woman with neonate large and widely spaced eyes with dilated pupils, high eyebrows, long hair, and a fuller hairstyle, a small nose, sexually mature high cheekbones, a small chin, an expressive, large smile, a narrow face with thin cheeks, and a full lower lip more attractive (Cunningham et al., 1995).

Other findings from four ethnic-cultural groups and 13 countries revealed that, despite their different racial appearance, Blacks, Asians, Whites, and Hispanics had somewhat similar beauty standards (Cunningham et al., 1995).

Westernization of Attractive Faces

Such similarities could be explained by the Westernization of facial beauty in the 20th century. Due to the mere exposure effect, the extensive presence of European and European American fashion periodicals, TV shows, and movies promoted such cultural dissemination. Prototypicality effects can also play a role.

Studies have also found that people from many other cultures, including Koreans, Black Nigerians, and Black Senegalese in Africa, African Americans, White Americans, British, and the culturally isolated Tsimane people from the Bolivian rainforest, substantially agree in their ratings of facial attractiveness (e.g., Coetzee, Greeff, Stephen, & Perrett, 2014; Martin, 1964; Silva, Lummaa, Muller, Raymond, & Alvergne, 2012; Zebrowitz, Bronstad, Montpare, 2011; Zebrowitz, Wang, Bronstad, Eisenberg, Undurraga, Reyes-García, & Godoy, 2012).

So, we can see that most people from different cultures agree on what is attractive. However, there are still some differences. They are mostly due to prototypicality effects from repeated exposure to attractive Western faces. 

Differences in Attractive Faces between Blacks and White People

Studies have also demonstrated that people’s preferences for attractive facial traits differ between countries. In particular, the data showed that Blacks and Whites have similar standards for facial attractiveness. However, they hold different standards for attractive body appearance (Cunningham et al., 1995).

As previously stated, both White and Black American men found many of the same female facial features appealing (see above), and it appears that racial facial characteristics such as lip size and nostril breadth had little impact on their assessment of attractiveness. In spite of these commonalities, Black men found Black women more appealing than White men. There was a clear predilection for the same race, which was most likely owing to imprinting and the simple exposure effect, which shaped their archetypal beauty.

How Asians and Hispanics Perceive Attractive Faces

Asians’ perceptions of attractive faces are also influenced by cultural factors. Asians view faces with strong cheekbones, broad chins, wide smiles, and expressive characteristics like high-set eyebrows as less appealing due to the prototypically round Asian face. They did, however, perceive women with lower cheekbones and wider cheeks more favorably (when compared to Whites).

However, familiarity and prototypicality are not the only factors that contribute to appeal. Asians and Hispanics alike frequently preferred the attractiveness of faces from other ethnic groups to those of their own. Across studies, Asians perceived female faces that appeared slightly less sexually mature and less expressive (relative to the facial ideal in America) as more attractive. (Cunningham et al., 1995).

The Mere Exposure Effect of Attractive Faces

In general, mere exposure effects have a big influence on facial attractiveness preferences. A recent study from 2014 found that the attractiveness of Black South African and White Scottish faces was perceived as similarly attractive by Black South Africans and White Scottish people. However, both Black South Africans and White Scots felt that Scottish faces were more appealing than African faces in terms of attractiveness (Coetzee, Greeff, Stephen, & Perrett, 2014).

The mere exposure effect could contribute to these differences because people in both cultural groups were well familiar with the facial types of White Europeans, while White Scottish were less familiar with the facial types of Black Africans.

The data also revealed that when judging the attractiveness of African female faces, Black South Africans rely heavily on color cues, whereas White Scottish rely heavily on shape cues (Coetzee, Greeff, Stephen, & Perrett, 2014).

So, there is evidence that the faces that people recognize as being close to their culturally prototypical ones are perceived as attractive to them. They also have preferences for faces resembling themselves. Because of these cultural predilections, people tend to concur in their opinion of what is attractive in the faces of people of their own race and ethnicity when they perceive the faces of people of different races and ethnicities.

It is important to note in this regards that what is beautiful is culturally good.

Among the Other Topics of Interest in this Regard Are:

Perceptive Qualities of an Attractive Appearance

People across cultures may perceive different qualities of physical appearance as attractive for mating.

Visual and auditory perceptions as well as tactile, kinesthetic, and olfactory senses may have different impacts on physical attraction.

Attraction to Familiar Others

Something familiar is frequently attractive to us, despite our interest in novelty. It is a persistent pattern of human perception and behavior, which is called the familiarity principle (Reis & Sprecher, 2009).

The principle is rooted in the mere exposure effect. We consider familiar situations, objects, actions, and people to be safe and unlikely to be harmful. People commonly like safe environments.

The Familiarity Principle in Relationships

The familiarity principle is important in interpersonal attraction to another person. “Birds of a feather tend to flock together.”

Imprinting, familiarity, and similarity use the same psychological mechanism as prototypicality. The perception of familiarity in the appearance of another person emerges due to the perception of his or her prototypicality. A prototypical person triggers attraction and desire for a relationship.

Many studies have shown that people tend to like others who look and behave familiar (e.g., Moreland & Zajonc, 1982; Peskin & Newell, 2004; Reis et all, 2011).

Familiarity breeds attraction. In general, we like the types of people who appear familiar to us. We have frequently seen them before. They have familiar physical appearances, personalities, and behavioral patterns.

This is one of the major obstacles to interracial and intercultural communication and relationships. So, men and women generally prefer to mingle among those of the same race, ethnicity, faith, and cultural background (Brooks & Neville, 2017).

Early Development of Attraction Preferences

The development of attraction preferences begins in early childhood and takes place on a subconscious level. The environment in which we grew up and the people with whom we spent a lot of time essentially affect our future preferences for boyfriends, girlfriends, and other partners in relationships. Our mother (or grandmother), father (or grandfather), and other close relatives frequently serve as templates for such preferences. The positive imprinting and repeated exposure to these people increase our attraction to them.

Sexual Imprinting in Children

The phenotype of the opposite-sex caregiver, with whom a child spent much of his or her early years, serves as a prototype for his or her future mate preference. The appearance of any person (a parent, stepparent, or another person) who raised a child for the majority of their formative years plays this role. This is called positive sexual imprinting (Bereczkei et al., 2002, 2004).

For example, researchers found that women tend to choose spouses that resemble their adoptive fathers. These findings exclude the factor of genetic similarity in favor of imprinting (Bereczkei et al., 2004).

Therefore, our early life experiences can set our mating preferences. In the future, if a man or woman resembles that prototypical person imprinted in childhood, for example, a mother or father, then this person may have a better chance of being sexually appealing. Thus, early childhood experience can shape mate preferences, even without being noticed.

As Fraley and Marks (2010, p. 1210) argued,

“beneath the surface, those early experiences are setting the stage for a set of preferences that essentially co-opt early attachment and caregiving experiences in the service of sexuality, leading people to find attractive in others features that are shared by their family members.”

Conscious and Unconscious Effects of Familiarity in Attraction

Three experimental studies have shown that the effects of familiarity and novelty on sexual attraction have different directions depending on whether the feeling of familiarity appears from conscious or unconscious sources. Their results showed that when participants were unaware of repeated exposure, the mere exposure effect increased attraction to a target person. However, when participants were aware of the repeated exposure, their attraction to the target person weakened (Fraley & Marks, 2010).

Thus, familiarity inspires sexual attraction when an individual is not aware of the origins of why another seems familiar. This potential partner may appear novel. However, this novelty is intriguing because the individual perceives in the partner something familiar that is difficult to explain.

You can also be interested in the articles:


Bereczkei, T., Gyuris, P., Koves, P., & Bernath, L. (2002). Homogamy, genetic similarity, and imprinting; parental influence on mate choice preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 677-690.

Bereczkei, T., Gyuris, P., & Weisfeld, G. E. (2004). Sexual imprinting in human mate choice. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 271, 1129-1134.

Brooks, J. E., & Neville, H. A. (2017). Interracial attraction among college men: The influence of ideologies, familiarity, and similarity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships34(2), 166-183.

Fraley, R. C., & Marks, M. J. (2010). Westermarck, Freud, and the incest taboo: Does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin36(9), 1202-1212.

Moreland, R. L., & Zajonc, R. B. (1982). Exposure effects in person perception: Familiarity, similarity, and attraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology18(5), 395-415.

Peskin, M., & Newell, F. N. (2004). Familiarity breeds attraction: Effects of exposure on the attractiveness of typical and distinctive faces. Perception33(2), 147-157.

Reis, H. T., Maniaci, M. R., Caprariello, P. A., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Familiarity does indeed promote attraction in live interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(3), 557–570https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022885

Reis, H. T., & Sprecher, S. (2009). Familiarity principle of attraction. In Encyclopedia of human relationships (Vol. 1, pp. 597-597). SAGE. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412958479.n194