Ugly, pretty girls

This is just plain odd. An accidental discovery. But, why does it happen? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but what if something more subtle is occurring?

The phenomenon is known as “flashed face distortion effect” and is described in a research paper thus:

“We describe a novel face distortion effect resulting from the fast-paced presentation of eye-aligned faces. When cycling through the faces on a computer screen, each face seems to become a caricature of itself and some faces appear highly deformed, even grotesque. The degree of distortion is greatest for faces that deviate from the others in the set on a particular dimension (eg if a person has a large forehead, it looks particularly large). This new method of image presentation, based on alignment and speed, could provide a useful tool for investigating contrastive distortion effects and face adaptation.”

I wonder whether it works for people who have not seen caracatures or grotesques of any kind, is it an evolutionary adaption for spotting people with whom your body would prefer you not to produce offspring?

Research Blogging IconTangen, J. M., Murphy, S.,, & Thompson, M. B. (2011). Flashed face distortion effect: Grotesque faces from relative spaces Perception : 10.1068/p6968


15 thoughts on “Ugly, pretty girls”

  1. I won’t have nightmares, but that is a strange phenomenon. However, the mind is really good a playing tricks with us.

  2. I’m not able to see it very well because my eyes have convergent insufficiency. I have double vision that isn’t correctable with a prism.

  3. @Tab Interesting. I think I’ve seen that effect in CGI…

    @Ben No, I’ve tried it slower, it still works if you let it, it also works even if you look at a still frame. There is more to it than the “rapid” aspect. When you say you see full faces, that’s really not how vision works, saccades aside, we have blind spots (fovea AND the blind spot right in front of you when you view things in dim light caused by the lack of appropriate receptors there). We don’t understand the “hard wiring” of our brains, your comment implies that this process of broad strokes perception is fully understood.

    @Frankie Headlines attract readers. If I’d called it “A short video clip revealing an incongruity in our perception of facial representations”, you might not have read it…I was also simply putting out the mate selection idea, it may be something totally different.

    @Tiwaz I think all the faces are female, yes, certainly some faces are androgenous. It is disturbing, yes.

  4. Right, several observations.

    1> Are all the pictures Female? Several of the faces, when I go through slowly, appear very masculine. I suppose they could be women, but several, especially near the end, really look like young men.

    2> Even if I focus on one of the two sides where the faces pop up, that face set still has a lesser but noticeable distortion effect going on.

    3> The distortion is REALLY CREEPY! I would have SWORN that one of the faces about half way through on the left had distinct like inch long fangs. Also, there were several instances where I could have sworn a given face had only a single large eye in the middle of the face.

    All in all, Interesting and disturbing.

  5. I observe the same effect readily when creating a character for a video game with face-customization options. I can never tell if a tweak I’ve made to the face is good-looking or grotesque unless I look away for about 15 seconds. (This is an important consideration when using face editors like that, as many combinations of options *do* result in grotesqueries.)

  6. @David Bradley:

    Good god man, THINK. If it went slower you’d be able to fully see the faces. If you were drunk… you’d still fully see the faces, because what you’re seeing here is a distortion based on rapid perception.

    It’s not about male or female or attractive or not. It’s about how our brains are hardwired to identify faces through broad strokes. The speed of the changes is to prevent use from being able to consciously appreciate details, while the most reflexive parts of our perception carve out FOREHEAD! LIPS! EYES!

    The evolutionary success of human beings is in part dependent on our social capacities, which requires the ability to identify the emotions of others.

  7. Very Intersting and a bit of a mind trip. I wish the tittle of the article wasn’t ‘ugly pretty girls’ but I get the point. I’m pretty sure the effect has nothing to do with gender as the distortion results from ” the fast-paced presentation of eye-aligned faces” and “the degree of distortion is greatest for faces that deviate from the others in the set on a particular dimension” perhaps if it was predominantly a feminine set of faces a masculine would stand out and vice versa. And I also think it’s important to note the author doesn’t mention gender. Also I think the question ” is it an evolutionary adaption for spotting people with whom your body would prefer you not to produce offspring?” Is somewhat misguided, if anything the flashed face distortion effect is a way of distinguishing physical characteristics that differ from the norm, although I’m not sure if that is a determines who we choose to mate with.

  8. Might this distortion of perception be inhibited by alcohol, giving rise to the “beer goggles” effect? Might it also give rise to the “don’t fancy yours much” assertion?

  9. The researchers are currently investigating further, they don’t say whether it works for women watching the video or whether the same effect occurs with male faces.

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