Are Ugly Faces More Memorable?

Sure, but you're also more likely to think you remember a beauty you don't even know.
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(Photo: Public Domain)

(Photo: Public Domain)

It's a classic research question in psychology: Do people remember beautiful faces better than they recall homely ones?

The answer may seem obvious, but, as University of Jena psychologists acknowledge in a paper to be published in Neuropsychologia, previous literature on the topic has produced inconsistent results. Some studies found a link between attractiveness and memory, others cited the opposite effect, and some found no relationship at all.

The researchers argue that the variance of these previous studies might be explained by their failure to account for the fact that distinctive faces (composed of things like huge lips, beady eyes, or other irregular features), regardless of attractiveness, are remembered better than more normal mugs. In this latest study, they compiled a set of faces that was designed to control for the variable. Every face, attractive or not, was matched in distinctiveness. 

People may have been more likely to correctly identify ugly faces they'd actually seen before, but in a remarkable wrinkle, people also often thought they had seen attractive faces that they hadn't.

The researchers claim that this is the first experiment to examine the effect of "attractiveness on face memory irrespective of distinctiveness." After creating a set of 200 faces, the authors asked 20 participants to study computer screens that flashed 25, pre-rated by another set of subjects as either attractive or unattractive. Following this, the subjects were exposed to 50 more faces, 25 of which they had already seen. During this testing stage, the subjects were asked to identify each of them as new or old by pressing corresponding keys. The results "were sorted into hits (correctly identified studied faces), misses (studied faces wrongly classified as new), correct rejections (new faces identified as new), and false alarms (new faces classified as studied), separately for attractive and unattractive faces."

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that people had the most accurate memories of the unattractive faces, and that this was a stronger predictor of memory than distinctiveness. “Until now we assumed that it was generally easier to memorize faces, which are being perceived as attractive – just because we prefer looking at beautiful faces,“ Dr. Holger Wiese, one of the authors, surmised in a statement.

The operative word here, though, is accuracy. People may have been more likely to correctly identify ugly faces they'd actually seen before, but in a remarkable wrinkle, people also often thought they had seen attractive faces that they hadn't. "In other words, attractive faces are more likely judged as previously seen, regardless of whether or not they were actually presented," the authors wrote. "This finding is reminiscent of similar results concerning the role of emotional expression and face memory, which are suggestive of a bias towards more liberal responses for faces with positive or happy expressions...." This seems to add at least some psychological credence to the lazy pickup line of "Haven't I seen you before?"

To explore how this works, the scientists monitored brain activity. They found that recognition and memory might be disrupted by the emotional brain processing associated with viewing attractive faces. The observed "memory bias suggests that pronounced affective processes, which accompany the perception of attractive faces, hamper the detailed encoding of facial identity and therefore reduce later recognition."

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