Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...

Sometimes, I don’t understand the point of rigorous scientific studies, like the one referenced in this article. The title of the article says it all - “You are less beautiful than you think”.

Really? Someone would actually go to such great lengths to emphatically state that our perception of our beauty/worth is way more bloated than reality? That we, in fact, look uglier than we think?

That’s all we need today, isn’t it? Someone to justify our qualms that the reflection we see in the mirror is way more unflattering than some of us already imagine.

I see a fundamental issue with this study as well. If you were to tell people that their pictures are morphed and then give them several choices from which they are asked to pick the image that they believe to be un-morphed, of course, people start with a strong bias. All of us want to strongly believe that we look better than how we see ourselves. If a researcher tells us that most images are morphed, we would hang onto that piece of evidence like a life-raft! Everybody innately wants to look good and be their best. Obviously, people would mostly gravitate to a picture that looks slightly flattering, especially if they know the pictures are altered. Nobody would pick a negatively enhanced picture after they are warned by the researchers. Besides, we humans can’t identif minor differences between images (such as a 10% slight change in facial features etc.). As an objective reader of the paper, even I couldn’t tell the difference between the 10%, 20% and 30% positively and negatively morphed faces.

But, does it really warrant such an extensive study (and an emphatic article) to state the obvious - that we humans like to feel good about ourselves? It’s common sense that most of us don’t like to be masochists. The fact that most participants in the study did not select their original image, but picked an image that was slightly positively enhanced is very telling - most people are not happy with how they actually look and want to believe and hope that they look slightly better. We all nurture the idea (not the belief) of an ideal-self. This illusion of an ideal-self is necessary (to some degree) for self-preservation, and even self-realization.  But it doesn’t mean that we all believe to have already realized this “ideal-self” - we are constantly striving to attain that perfection and idealism, and that’s where the issue is. If women (and men) mostly believe that they are far more better looking and equipped with desirable traits, why are so many of us so insecure and lacking in confidence all the time? Why is every other woman unhappy about some aspect of her physical appearance? Why do brightly lit restroom mirrors scare the living daylights out of (most of) us?

How do such studies corroborate with the realities of the world outside the science labs? And what do they achieve or hope to achieve with this piece of knowledge?

Dove’s recent campaign might be a little stretched. Yes, it has its scientific lapses, but I think it bolsters something way more positive and constructive than certain scientists that resolutely continue to miss the forest for the trees.


SUMI said...

Yeah, I don't "get" the motivation behind the research.

SecondSight said...

I think you and the other article are saying essentially the same thing :). The research seems to show that:
- people want to think they are better looking than they are
- we have a strong desire to view ourselves as better looking than we may seem objectively
- this strong desire to create an internal self-image of a better person potentially has a useful biological/psychological purpose.
(this is based on my reading of the SciAm piece, not the actual article).

From what I've learnt, such studies of what's "normal" are a way to understanding abnormal states- for example, why do anorexic people see themselves as hideously obese? why do people suffer narcissistic or self-destructive tendencies? We're still struggling to understand these things, and knowing how the majority of our brains/minds create internal self-images is one way to do that.

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - You are a far more perceptive and intelligent reader :). I definitely did not get the first two points from the SciAm article. The SciAm article talks about "thinking" not "wanting"... and there's a wide difference between
1. Thinking you are more beautiful than you actually are
2. Wanting to be more beautiful than you actually are

And this difference should be noted.

I also believe there is a difference between overestimating our actions and abilities on a Likert scale, versus actually believing, thinking, internalizing or even verbalizing those things outside of a controlled task and measurement scale. And there is also a difference between perception of one's personality traits versus perception of one's physical traits. The two cannot be always correlated. All of this is not just my belief :). There's also this other subtle phenomenon that participants go through - of wanting to present themselves in the best light possible during the study. This bias is inherent in every experimental study with human participants. So, there's a lot going on and these things can't be reduced to one catchy "result".

What rubbed me the wrong way about the article is mostly the arrogant and supercilious tone of the author who is intent on proving that a commercial marketing campaign is not scientifically valid - and to what end? The title of the article is obnoxious, and even the abrupt conclusion - "But thinking we are more beautiful than we really are may not be such a bad thing", doesn't really communicate much. How would an anorexic react upon reading it? "Omg, I'm actually fatter and uglier than I think?!"

So, what exactly does the author convey and communicate by disproving a positive message (let alone the marketing bells and whistles) and stating this to the lay person?

I'm not personally attached to Dove's recent campaign. Nor am I blown away by it. But, let's face it - the video hits a true note and there's absolutely no disputing that. Who cares if the video is scientifically wrong when it truly resonates with millions and probes them to see themselves in a more positive and confident manner?

Thanks for pointing out the application and the ways in which this knowledge can be built upon. I wish the article framed this in a much better way to flesh out the motivations and significance.

SecondSight said...

To go bottom first with your points- I agree, the SciAm article is basically one person's opinion propped up by a silly study in a rather pointless article. Enough said :).

For your other points- to add a disclaimer, I tend to be wary of such social science research because their methods are just so vague. I see a bit too much of an overlap between thinking/wanting/self-image- there's plenty of other social science stuff to prop up this overlap as well :). So, the difference between A- "thinking you're prettier" and B- "wanting to be thought of as prettier" is a bit fuzzy to me. Note, "wanting to be prettier" and "thinking you are prettier" (1 & 2) are opposites, whereas the A and B aren't.

As to scales- again, a social sciences issue. How would someone who is more self-aware and less honest fare on this exercise, compared with someone who is less self-aware but more honest? There are a hundred other variables one could introduce.

About the writing of the piece itself (bringing down the ad campaign for the heck of it)- I'd suggest leaving a comment on the article to let them know- I completely agree, and its definitely worth pointing it out to the writer and editors :)

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - Exactly! You hit the nail on the head with this - "How would someone who is more self-aware and less honest fare on this exercise, compared with someone who is less self-aware but more honest? There are a hundred other variables one could introduce."

As much as I hate to criticize social science research methods (for obvious reasons), it bugs me when some scientists are so smug that their extremely controlled & singular study holds the holy truth - when clearly there are gaps and limitations. The reductionist approach that they take, knowing the limitations of the research methods, especially with us complex creatures is what is frustrating. Especially when they believe in the numbers they chart out than the realities outside the lab :).

I wanted to leave a comment immediately, but I was so livid that I wanted to just vent and rant and hopefully cool off with a little more objectivity. :)