It's counterintuitive but psychologists say we tend to remember unattractive faces more likely than attractive ones - attractive faces leave much less distinctive impressions on our memory unless they have particularly remarkable features.

Dr. Holger Wiese of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena  can remember what actress Angelina Jolie looks like, for example. He lauds her great eyes, full lips and harmonious features. She is, to him, memorable, while many Americans can't name a movie she was in, but that is in contrast to his research, which finds unattractive is usually more memorable. “Her features combine many factors which contribute to the attractiveness of a face. On the one hand we find very symmetrical and rather average faces appealing. On the other hand, people who are perceived as being particularly attractive stand out by additional traits, which distinguish them from the average.”

So being attractive isn't enough, features like big eyes or a distinctively shaped mouth are needed to ensure a high recognition value. “We tend to remember those faces well,” according to Wiese.

For their research the psychologists showed photos of faces to their test subjects. One half of the faces were considered as being more attractive, the other half as less attractive and all of them were being thought of as similarly distinctive looking. The test subjects were shown the faces only for a few seconds to memorize them. During the ensuing test phase they were again shown faces and they had to decide if they recognized them.

Dr. Holger Wiese and Carolin Altmann explain how attractiveness prevents the recognition of faces. Photo: Jan-Peter Kasper/FSU

The scientists say they were surprised by the result: “Until now we assumed that it was generally easier to memorize faces, which are being perceived as attractive – just because we prefer looking at beautiful faces,“ said Wiese. Their results instead found that such a correlation cannot be easily sustained. They also assume that the recognition in the case of attractive faces is distorted by emotional influences which exacerbate the recognition at a later time. This was suggested by evidence from the EEG-recordings during the memory tests.

They say their study revealed a further interesting secondary aspect: In the case of attractive faces, scientists detected considerably more false positive results: In the test phase the test persons stated that they recognized a face without having seen it before. “We obviously tend to believe that we recognize a face just because we find it attractive," Wiese supposes.

Citation: Wiese H et al.: Effects of attractiveness on face memory separated from distinctiveness: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Neuropsychologia (2014), doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.12.023