When we look at a person’s face, we can tell a lot about them. Our brain makes snap decisions as to whether the person is male or female, attractive or not, or young or old. Dr. Richard Russell, a psychology professor at Gettysburg College, studies the cues to health, age and beauty hidden in our faces. “I'm trying to understand how we recognize other people and make judgments about them based on their facial appearance,” he explains.
His previous research found that increased contrast between our eyes and lips and the skin surrounding them was perceived as more feminine. (Read all about those fascinating findings here.) His latest results, published in PLoS ONE, found that this contrast is also an indicator of age.
Russell and his team first analyzed 289 faces ranging in age from 20 to 70 years old. As people got older, they noticed, the color of the lips, eyes and eyebrows lightened while the skin of the face generally darkened. This leads to less contrast between the features and the skin. Which got Russell thinking—could people be using contrast as a cue for age?
So, Russell and his team asked over 100 volunteers to estimate the ages of facial images, but this time, he artificially increased or decreased the contrast. When facial contrast was increased, the participants thought the faces were younger, while when it was decreased, they thought the faces were older.
The left image shows a face with facial contrast increased and the right image shows the same face with facial contrast decreased.
Russell has also previously found that makeup tends to increase the contrast between features and the skin. Not only do darkened eyes and redder lips make faces appear more feminine, Russell’s discovery now suggests makeup makes women appear younger, too.
“Many people are concerned with reducing the visual signs of aging, and this supports the existence of the multi-billion dollar cosmetic and cosmetic surgery industries,” write the authors. “How cosmetics make the face more attractive is one of the key questions for understanding cosmetics,” explains Russell. By artificially creating a more youthful appearance, makeup enhances signals of health and vitality. But it’s just a piece of the aging puzzle: While the team found contrast was a factor, they also found that other cues, like wrinkles and sagging, played a much larger role in age estimation.
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