Facial symmetry may be attractive, but not because it indicates good health

Picking potential sexual partners because they have ‘attractive’ facial symmetry does not guarantee they will also be healthy, new research has found.

Studies into the psychology of choosing a mate have often made the assumption that people have a preference for symmetry in faces because it provides a cue to good health during development, while asymmetrical features suggest poor health.

However, a new study led by Dr Nicholas Pound, from the Department of Life Sciences at Brunel University London, calls into question the idea that subtle facial asymmetries may be a cue to underlying health issues.

The team found that a type of facial asymmetry in adolescents (known as fluctuating asymmetry) wasn’t associated with early experiences of common childhood illnesses such as coughs, diarrhoea or vomiting; specific infections such as measles, chicken pox, or influenza; or physical indicators of health such as birth weight or later height.

Dr Pound said: “Overall, this study does not support the idea that subtle variations in facial symmetry act as a reliable cue to physiological health in the general population.

“However, it remains the case that significant trauma, serious infections and certain genetic conditions can cause substantial facial asymmetries – and people’s preferences for the absence of subtle asymmetries could reflect an overgeneralisation from an aversion to major asymmetries.”

The study, carried out in collaboration with colleagues at Cardiff University, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Bristol used data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) to test a sample of more than 4,700 children using 3D face scans and health records collected over more than a decade.

The paper Facial fluctuating asymmetry is not associated with childhood ill-health in a large British cohort study by Dr Nicholas Pound (Brunel University), Dr David Lawson (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Dr Arshed Toma, Professor Stephen Richmond, Dr Alexei Zhurov (Cardiff University School of Dentistry), and Professor Ian Penton-Voak (University of Bristol) was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences on August 13 2014.

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