You’re scrolling through online dating profiles when suddenly LanceBicepTX’s rugged good looks catch your eye. You know you should go for the cute, wholesome SettleDowner32, but nope, too late, you’ve gone and messaged Lance.
Little do we know, whether we’re browsing profile pics or scanning faces in a crowd, we are looking for the same qualities our ancestors sought before the Internet found “the one” for us.
Now computers do the heavy lifting. By 2004, there were already over 800 online dating sites, each one claiming to know what you should be looking for in your perfect partner. Match.com uses the Myers-Briggs personality test, eHarmony.com uses the Big Five personality traits.
But back in caveman times, when fire was considered high-tech, we relied on symmetry. A potential mate’s facial symmetry helped us decode health, history, and even the strength of their genes (early sexting, if you will!).
Symmetry is Sexy
On a perfectly symmetric human face, you could draw a vertical line down the center of the face and both sides would look identical. You could flip either side to replace the other and no one would notice the difference.
“Studies show that perfectly symmetrical faces are typically rated more attractive than faces with low symmetry,” says Viren Swami, Ph.D., Reader in Psychology at the University of Westminster and YouBeauty Attraction Expert. We even prefer symmetry in familiar faces, like our friends’ and our own faces.
Still, everyday asymmetry isn’t a deal-breaker. “Within normal bounds, the degree of asymmetry is less important,” says Swami. For most people, symmetry plays a very small role in making our hearts beat faster.
The ‘Good Genes’ Theory
We care about symmetry and find it attractive because it’s essential for survival.
When a lioness takes off after a straggling gazelle, her legs move in perfect synchrony (a feat you can appreciate if you’ve ever run a three-legged race!). The symmetry in her movement can be traced all the way down to her core—to symmetries in the network of nerve cells that spurs her movement.
Human symmetry is an equally synchronized system.
“Left-right symmetry in growing embryos requires very close control on each side to keep them in sync,” says Ian Stewart, Ph.D., emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick and author of "Why Beauty Is Truth." As we develop, all sorts of stressors try to mess up the process—illness, toxins and even emotional trauma. Adults with a higher degree of symmetry have shown a stronger resistance to the stressors they faced in the womb and during early childhood. “Symmetry isn’t inherent in the growth process: it shows close control of development,” says Stewart.
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