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Research suggests facial attractiveness explains patterns in mixed-race marriage

09 February 2012

A novel explanation for mixed-race marriage based on patterns of facial attractiveness has been identified by researchers at Cardiff University.

Currently, government data on interracial marriage shows that in the UK and USA more black men marry white women than vice-versa. Further, more white men marry East Asian women than the reverse.

Existing models of interracial marriage based on racial, economic or social factors have not been able to explain these asymmetries. Now, new research by Dr Michael Lewis of the University’s School of Psychology examines these mixed-race marriage patterns based on perceived facial attractiveness.

As part of the research a group of 40 undergraduate students were asked to rate the attractiveness of 600 opposite-sex faces categorised by race – white, black and Asian. The students, aged between 18 and 30 years of age, were of white, Asian or black ethnicity.

Results showed black male faces were rated on average as the most attractive followed by white faces and then Asian faces. For females, Asian faces were seen as the most attractive on average followed by white and then black faces. These differences were small but significant when looked at in a large sample.

"It is no coincidence that groups perceived as being more attractive - black males and Asian females - feature more often in mixed-race marriages than their opposite-sex counterparts," argues Dr Lewis.

Using the attractiveness data collected from the student sample, a mathematical model of marriage behaviour was tested. This model produced the same patterns of mixed-race marriages as in the government records. The model also suggested that those taking part in mixed-race marriages are, on average, more attractive than those in same-race marriages.

"It will come as no surprise to many that facial attractiveness makes up part of the decision of who we marry, but previously this factor has not featured much in scientific models of marriage," said Dr Lewis. "Instead, more measurable features such as wealth, fertility or racial status have been considered to be more important.

"This new explanation accounts for the same patterns observed in the marriage data but does not require there to be differences in racial status between black and white people, only differences in perceived attractiveness."

Previously, in the largest study of its kind, Dr Lewis showed that mixed race people are perceived as being more attractive than non-mixed-race people. His new research A facial attractiveness account of gender asymmetries in interracial marriage is published in the journal PLoS One.

Notes to editors

1. The Cardiff School of Psychology is one of Britain top-rated schools of psychology, it being the first to achieve the double accolade of the highest grade of merit for both research and teaching. In an independent assessment of teaching, conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales it was rated ‘Excellent’, and in the latest Research Assessment Exercise it was awarded the highest level of distinction, Grade 5A, indicating research of a uniform international standard. The School is one of the largest Schools of psychology in the United Kingdom. It currently has some 40 full-time teaching staff, including 12 professors, alongside 40 full-time research staff, and nearly 60 research students.

2. Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, University President Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Three major new Research Institutes, offering radical new approaches to neurosciences and mental health, cancer stem cells and sustainable places were announced by the University in 2010.

For further information, contact:

Victoria Dando, Public Relations, Cardiff University, Tel: 02920 879074; email: