Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Beauty-is-Good Stereotype in the Brain

Leo Tolstoy once said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” And how complete is this delusion? In a recent study, Tsukiura & Cabeza (2011) provides an insight into this question by investigating the neural mechanism underlying the Beauty-is-Good stereotype. They were interested in the activity of the medial orbito frontal cortex (associated with positive stimuli, reward processing etc); the insular cortex (associated with negative stimuli, punishment processing etc) and the interaction between these two regions.

This fMRI study required participants to engage in 3 different tasks:
  1. Face attractiveness rating (beauty judgment task)
  2. Action goodness rating (moral judgment task)
  3. Brightness rating (control condition)

The 3 tasks. Click to enlarge

Conforming to their hypothesis, the authors found that activity in the mOFC increased linearly as a function of both attractiveness and goodness rating. Activity in the insular cortex also decreased linearly as a function of both types of ratings. In both regions, the strong correlation between the activations caused by both judgments also supports the idea that similar neural regions are engaged when we are processing attractiveness and moral goodness.

Furthermore, the negative correlation between right mOFC and right insular cortex provides support for the “dual process hypothesis” of the Beauty is Good stereotype in that we display both a positive bias of attractiveness as being good and a negative bias against unattractiveness as being bad.

That is to say, the stereotype is driven by two opposing mechanism whereby we tend to think that an attractive person is more moral and an unattractive person is less moral, rather than a singular bias towards attractiveness or unattractiveness.

Click to enlarge

Our delusion that beauty is goodness then appears to have been built into how our brain processes both type of judgments and the completeness of this delusion may surprise even the great Leo Tolstoy.

ResearchBlogging.orgTsukiura T, & Cabeza R (2011). Shared brain activity for aesthetic and moral judgments: implications for the Beauty-is-Good stereotype. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 6 (1), 138-48 PMID: 20231177

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