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Survival of the Prettiest

The Science of Beauty

By Nancy Etcoff
12-minute read
Audio available
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff

Survival of the Prettiest (1999) explores why people prefer things that are beautiful, revealing that our aesthetic tastes are not merely a matter of environment and culture. For instance, what we find beautiful has a lot to do with our innate desire for a strong and healthy child. And even three-month-old babies know beauty when they see it!

  • Social psychologists interested in scientific and feminist perspectives on beauty
  • Those who’ve wondered why an hourglass figure is thought to be attractive
  • Anthropologists who want to know more about our innate ability to detect beauty

Nancy Etcoff is a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. She has a Master of Education degree from Harvard, a PhD in psychology from Boston University and has studied the brain and cognitive sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Survival of the Prettiest

The Science of Beauty

By Nancy Etcoff
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff
Synopsis

Survival of the Prettiest (1999) explores why people prefer things that are beautiful, revealing that our aesthetic tastes are not merely a matter of environment and culture. For instance, what we find beautiful has a lot to do with our innate desire for a strong and healthy child. And even three-month-old babies know beauty when they see it!

Key idea 1 of 7

The sciences have neglected the study of beauty – a topic that deserves a closer look.

Modern-day science seems to have an answer for just about everything. However, it hasn’t had much to say on the subject of beauty.

In 1954, American psychologist Gardner Lindzey wrote the classic Handbook of Social Psychology, which became a standard reference book for the field. But on the subject of beauty, there’s only one entry, covering “physical factors.”

This aversion to the subject probably stems from failed attempts to find connections between physical attributes and behavior.

For example, Johann Kaspar Lavater’s 1772 Essays on Physiognomy tried to tie certain facial features to specific character traits – a project that modern science thoroughly debunked.

Furthermore, social scientists have historically shown very little regard for the subject of beauty.

The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which greatly influenced social sciences in the twentieth century, may be to blame for this disregard. The SSSM viewed the mind as a blank slate that is shaped exclusively by environmental factors and social conditioning; biology doesn’t come into play at all.

An influential book by Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, makes arguments in exactly this vein. Examining the subject of beauty through a feminist lens, Wolf argues that beauty is a purely social construct, that it’s used to uphold a patriarchal society and generate profits for cosmetics companies.

But this is a limited view of beauty, since it focuses solely on modern perceptions. It omits an undeniable fact: the story of the formation of the human mind covers more than ten thousand years of evolutionary history.

But oversimplifications are typical of the SSSM model, which misguidedly separates biology and culture and ignores beauty’s true complexity.

Even when considering cosmetics, we can see this complexity at work.

Roger Bingham, a science reporter, makes a connection between biology and beauty rituals: He suggests that when women apply makeup to their cheeks to imitate a natural blush, they are signaling nubility, youth and sexual innocence – a mix of culturally and biologically valued attributes.

While there’s no denying that beauty has existed throughout history, the question remains: What is beauty exactly?

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