Women who wear makeup are perceived as more attractive and competent than those who do not, according to a recently released study headed by Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor Nancy L. Etcoff.
The study, titled “Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals,” asked participants to judge a variety of women’s photographs based on a number of characteristics including attractiveness, competence, likeability, and trustworthiness.
Researchers were particularly interested to see how makeup affected judgments both automatically and after longer deliberation, they said.
“I’m interested in bringing science to the study of adornment,” said Etcoff, a psychology professor who has studied this topic for over 20 years. “The study aimed to address exactly what we look at when we judge a person, and what these tools do.”
The study, which involved researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Procter & Gamble Cosmetics, Boston University, and HMS, was first released in the online publication PLoS ONE on Monday.
In the study, two groups, each with over one hundred participants, were asked to rate photographs of female faces with varying levels of “color cosmetics” applied by a professional makeup artist. Participants in the first group only saw the photographs for 250 milliseconds, while those in the second group had an unlimited amount of time to examine them.
Judging a number of qualities, participants then used a sliding scale to input their ratings directly into a computer. The responses were sent to a statistician at Dana-Farber.
Findings revealed that cosmetics have a significant and automatic effect on judgments of attractiveness. Even more importantly, makeup provides additional facial stimuli that influence more long-term, deliberative judgments on social factors such as trustworthiness.
Sarah A. Vickery, co-researcher for the study and principal scientist at Procter & Gamble Beauty and Grooming, summarized these findings in an interview with CBS News.
“This means that makeup really can be seen as a tool in a woman’s arsenal that allows her to actually control the way the world sees her,” she said in the interview.
But despite the physically-oriented implications of these findings, the study also revealed that positive perception decreases as women apply heavier makeup. To this end, Etcoff emphasized that in no way should the study imply that women need to use cosmetics or abide by social convention.
“People don’t want to judge a book by its cover, and yet they still do,” she said. “But what matters is how we perceive ourselves. Women can still be confident and competent without makeup."