Beauty-in-averageness and its contextual modulations: A Bayesian statistical account

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 31 (NeurIPS 2018)

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Chaitanya Ryali, Angela J. Yu


Understanding how humans perceive the likability of high-dimensional objects'' such as faces is an important problem in both cognitive science and AI/ML. Existing models generally assume these preferences to be fixed. However, psychologists have found human assessment of facial attractiveness to be context-dependent. Specifically, the classical Beauty-in-Averageness (BiA) effect, whereby a blended face is judged to be more attractive than the originals, is significantly diminished or reversed when the original faces are recognizable, or when the blend is mixed-race/mixed-gender and the attractiveness judgment is preceded by a race/gender categorization, respectively. This "Ugliness-in-Averageness" (UiA) effect has previously been explained via a qualitative disfluency account, which posits that the negative affect associated with the difficult race or gender categorization is inadvertently interpreted by the brain as a dislike for the face itself. In contrast, we hypothesize that human preference for an object is increased when it incurs lower encoding cost, in particular when its perceived {\it statistical typicality} is high, in consonance with Barlow's seminalefficient coding hypothesis.'' This statistical coding cost account explains both BiA, where facial blends generally have higher likelihood than ``parent faces'', and UiA, when the preceding context or task restricts face representation to a task-relevant subset of features, thus redefining statistical typicality and encoding cost within that subspace. We use simulations to show that our model provides a parsimonious, statistically grounded, and quantitative account of both BiA and UiA. We validate our model using experimental data from a gender categorization task. We also propose a novel experiment, based on model predictions, that will be able to arbitrate between the disfluency account and our statistical coding cost account of attractiveness.