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Study: Color Cosmetics Alter Perception of Women


CINCINNATI—Color cosmetics significantly alter how women are perceived by others, at first glance and over time, according to a new study from P&G Beauty & Grooming, and lead investigator Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor at Harvard University and associate researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry (PLoS ONE; Oct. 3, 2011. Research on the perception of faces has mainly focused on the size, shape and configuration of inherited features or the biological phenotype, and largely ignored the effects of adornment, or the extended phenotype. Previous research on the evolution of signaling has shown animals frequently alter visual features, including color cues, to attract, intimidate or protect themselves from conspecifics. Humans engage in conscious manipulation of visual signals using cultural tools in real time rather than genetic changes over evolutionary time.

“Researchers have studied first impressions of innate facial characteristics, such as facial symmetry, but until now, no research has rigorously examined the role applied beauty or features of the extended human phenotype, such as makeup and hair color, play in perception of beauty, personality and character at first glance and longer inspection," Etcoff said.“For the first time, we have found applying makeup has an effect beyond increasing attractiveness—it impacts first impressions and overall judgments of perceived likeability, trustworthiness and competence. In today’s world of self-portraits appearing on networking and dating websites, ballots, resumes and applications, the results of the study have broad implications."

In this study, researchers investigated one cultural tool—the use of color cosmetics. In two studies, viewers were asked to rate the same female faces (100 photos of 25 women’s faces) with or without color cosmetics. The style of makeup varied from minimal (natural), to moderate (professional) to dramatic (glamorous). Each look provided increasing luminance contrast between the facial features and surrounding skin. Faces were shown for 250 milliseconds or for unlimited inspection time, and subjects rated them for attractiveness, competence, likeability and trustworthiness.

At 250 milliseconds, cosmetics had significant positive effects on all outcomes. Length of inspection time did not change the effect for competence or attractiveness. However, with longer inspection time, the effect of cosmetics on likability and trust varied by specific makeup looks, indicating cosmetics could impact automatic and deliberative judgments differently. The results suggest cosmetics can create supernormal facial stimuli, and one way they may do so is by exaggerating cues to sexual dimorphism. The results provide evidence: judgments of facial trustworthiness and attractiveness are at least partially separable; beauty has a significant positive effect on judgment of competence, a universal dimension of social cognition, but has a more nuanced effect on the other universal dimension of social warmth; and the extended phenotype significantly influences perception of biologically important signals at first glance and at longer inspection. Makeup application specifically impacts judgments of attractiveness and character when viewed rapidly or for unlimited amounts of time.

Sarah Vickery, Ph.D., principal scientist, research & development, color cosmetics, P&G Beauty & Grooming, believes the data’s implications also suggest makeup can give women the power to determine which aspects of their personality they want communicated to others.

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