Is beauty context-dependent? A priming study on facial attractiveness.

Werheid, K., Schacht, A., and Sommer, W.
Institute of Psychology, Humboldt University at Berlin, Germany

Recent research on affective face processing has revealed dissociable brain responses to attractive versus non-attractive faces. However, everyday experience suggests that judgements of attractiveness are context-dependent. The present study employed a priming technique in order to specify the influence of affectively congruent, incongruent or neutral primes on judgements of facial attractiveness.

Event-related potentials were recorded from twenty-four participants (12 female) while classifying faces as attractive or non-attractive. Each target face was preceded either by a affectively congruent or an incongruent portrait of another person. Additionally, pictures of objects from everyday life and scrambled faces served as affectively neutral primes. All stimuli were selected on the basis of pilot ratings.

The comparison of the three different prime type conditions revealed that the presence of an emotionally significant prime as compared to a neutral prime altered the processing of target faces, as indicated by attractiveness judgements, reaction times, and event-related potentials. When faces were preceded by another face, priming effects were found in affectively congruent as compared to incongruent trials. Our results support the view that judgements of facial attractiveness are influenced by the presence and by the valence of its immediate affective context.