You're Pretty... Because Everyone Else Thinks So

agreement groupthink

Our conformity instinct leads us to follow the crowd—even when it comes to rating attractiveness.

While we like to think of ourselves as unique, there's more lemming in us than we realize. Not only are our actions open to suggestion, as previous studies have shown, so are our opinions about non-essential things like beauty. A new study explains that we have our unconscious brain to thank for that.

Even when it comes to rating someone's level of attractiveness, we're susceptible to groupthink. Researchers asked Dutch women subjects to rate pictures of faces based on their level of beauty, then they told the women their averages were either above, lower or spot-on with the opinions of the rest of the group. The subjects were asked to judge the faces a second time, and most of the women changed their second-round opinions to be closer to the average.

These findings, while fascinating in terms of our standards of beauty, reveal the serious challenge we face in society when going against attitudes like sexism or bigotry, or behaviors like unprotected sex or domestic violence. CNN explains the brain's reaction to being an outlier like this:

When people hold an opinion differing from others in a group, their brains produce an error signal. A zone of the brain popularly called the "oops area" becomes extra active, while the "reward area" slows down, making us think we are too different.

This could be used to positively affect our body image perceptions. With enough exposure to the opinion that emaciated bodies are not beautiful and that those of a healthy size are, or that part of finding self worth as a woman is, in fact, NOT tied to a man's attraction to you (ahem, American Idol bikini girl), our ideas of gender and attraction would be better off!

Curiously, the subjects were all women. So, is Hugh Jackman actually sexy, or have we just been trained by media and our peers to think he is?

The CNN article points out that one person breaking rank with the groupthink begins to undo its spell; something handy to keep in mind the next time we're deciding what's beautiful, acceptable or healthy.