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favored very fast detection of fear expressions on the faces of others (e.g. Palermo & Rhodes, 2007), so one can avoid whatever predator or attacker is inciting the fear. By contrast, given that human mate choice and courtship typically require at least a few hours, with a large investment of conscious, attentive, thoughtful interaction (Geher & Miller, 2007; Miller, 2000), a speed advantage of a few hundred milliseconds in judging facial attractiveness seems trivial. This point raises a problem with “automaticity” as a generic criterion for adaptedness: if a perceptual decision already happens in less than a second with barely noticeable demands on attention and feeds into a process of social or sexual interaction that lasts for at least a few minutes, as most significant interactions with conspecifics do, then there may be no fitness benefits of pushing the perceptual process to be even faster or less attention demanding than it already is. Barrett et al. (2006) made a similar argument against automaticity for more leisurely social and sexual judgment tasks.
This study has several limitations that should be addressed in further research. The participants were all young adult female university students in the United States, with about half being Anglo (white/Caucasian) and half being Hispanic (with various levels of genetic admixture from European and Native American populations). Results might differ for participants of different ages and sexes, or, less plausibly, for participants of different nationalities and ethnicities. Older adult females with more social experience might perhaps acquire higher automaticity in judging male attractiveness. Women at peak fertility, just before ovulation, might show higher automaticity in responding to highly attractive male faces, given their higher incentives for poaching good genes. Males might show higher automaticity in judging female facial attractiveness, given their higher incentives for opportunistic short-term mating. The face photos were from male university students reflecting a normal range of attractiveness; it is possible that extremely attractive or extremely repulsive faces are processed through different, capacity-free channels (e.g., see Ackerman et al., 2009).
This is the first evolutionary psychology study to use the PRP paradigm to investigate whether attractiveness perception is “automatic” in the sense of requiring no central attentional resources. We found that even the perception of facial attractiveness—a premier example of an adaptation, a very well-studied set of mechanisms at the heart of human mate choice and a process central to reproductive success— is not automatic in the sense of requiring no central attentional resources. Based on the lack of automaticity in that process, we could conclude that facial attractiveness perception is not an adaptation, just as DeSteno et al. (2002) concluded that the sex difference in jealousy judgment is not an adaptation. However, given the vast evidence suggesting that attractiveness perception reflects psychological adaptation, we instead suggest that this finding provides further evidence that automaticity is a poor guide to adaptedness, in accord with theoretical arguments made by other evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Barrett et al., 2006; Barrett & Kurzban, 2006; Pinker, 1997; Sperber, 2005). Perceptual adaptations will evolve capacity-free automaticity only when there are selection pressures to do so (Barret et al., 2006). For many social and sexual decisions that happen over the course of hours (for short-term mate choice) to months (for long-term mate choice), those selection pressures were simply not there, and there was plenty of time to use central attentional resources to appreciate the beauty of others.
For assistance running the experiments, thanks to Rachel Whang, Mikyung Jang, Seihee Lim, Jiyeon Choi and Miso Choi. For helpful feedback on an earlier draft, thanks to Robert Kurzban, Clark Barrett and an anonymous reviewer. References
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