Thirteen milliseconds. Really: thirteen milliseconds.
To find out exactly how quickly we can tell if a person is hot or not, neuroscientists Ingrid Olson and Christy Marshuetz devised a sneaky experiment. They exposed men and women to a series of pre-rated faces, some gorgeous and other homely, and asked them to rate their appearance. The twist was that the faces flickered on the screen for ony thirteen milliseconds — a flash so fast that the exasperated viewers swore they didn’t see anything. Yet when forced to rate the faces they thought they didn’t see, the judges were uncannily accurate. Without knowing why, they gave good-looking faces significantly higher scores than unattractive ones.
The fascinating implication here is that beauty is perceived subconsciously. It’s not as if the subjects had much time to meditate on anyone’s hotness — they weren’t even aware of seeing a face. To a great extent, first impressions of people’s looks are less about choice and culture and cultivated tastes, and more about something deeper and universal. Judging attractiveness seems to happen just as automatically and matter-of-factly as judgng identity, gender, age, and expression.
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