Here’s some comforting news for anyone who despairs at how they look in photos – research by psychologists at the Universities of California and Harvard finds that the same people are rated as more attractive in videos than in static images taken from those videos. In other words, if you think you look awful in that holiday snap – don’t worry, you probably look much better in the flesh when people can see you moving.
Robert Post and his team call the relative unattractiveness of static faces, “the frozen face effect”. They think it may have to do with the way we form an impression of a moving face that’s averaged across the various positions and profiles of that face. This would fit earlier findings showing that more average faces are judged as more attractive. Another possibility is that we find moving faces more attractive because “they optimally drive the neural mechanisms of face recognition”. After all, the camera was only invented relatively recently and our face processing brain systems evolved to process moving faces, not still ones.
Post and his colleagues made their findings by asking a handful of participants to rate how “flattering” or “attractive” 20 people looked in two-second video clips and in 1200 static frames taken from those clips. The same faces were consistently rated as more attractive and flattering in the video clips than in the stills.
Further experiments attempted to establish the mechanism underlying this effect. It was found that the same rule held with the videos and stills turned up-side down. The researchers also showed the effect is nothing to do with the videos containing more information: when the “flattering” ratings of an ensemble of multiple stills of a face was compared against ratings of those same stills in a video, once again the video received the more positive ratings. Memory didn’t seem to be a factor either – more or less flattering images weren’t remembered any better than average. However it was found that to be judged as more flattering, videos do need to run in sequence. Jumbled-up, out-of-sequence videos of a face didn’t receive higher ratings than stills of that face.
The researchers said their findings could explain why portrait photography is so challenging. “… [The frozen face effect] may explain why photography of faces is so difficult to master and why people anecdotally believe they look worse in photographs,” they said.
Post, R., Haberman, J., Iwaki, L., and Whitney, D. (2012). The Frozen Face Effect: Why Static Photographs May Not Do You Justice. Frontiers in Psychology, 3 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00022