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Fri June 14, 2013

Are We Hard-Wired For Beauty?

Originally published on Fri June 14, 2013 7:55 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode What Is Beauty?

Psychologist Nancy Etcoff joins philosopher Denis Dutton to explain why beauty inspires and motivates us. Etcoff says our response to beauty is visceral, and we use strong words — like "bombshell" — when we talk about it.

About Nancy Etcoff

Nancy Etcoff is part of a new vanguard of cognitive researchers asking: Why do we like beautiful things? And how on earth did we evolve that way? In her book Survival of the Prettiest, she refutes the social origins of beauty in favor of far more prosaic and evolutionary explanations. Looking for a partner with clear skin? You're actually checking for parasites. And let's just say there's a reason high heels are always in fashion.

Her recent research into the question of happiness exposes results that not only are surprising, but also reinforce things we should have known all along, like the fact that having flowers in the house really does make us happier. As the instructor of "The Science of Happiness" at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Program in Aesthetics and Well-Being at Massachusetts General Hospital, Etcoff is uniquely qualified to solve the mysteries of contentment.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on our show today, what's beauty and why the survival of our species may depend on it. So we were just listening to Denis Dutton's TED Talk and in it he mentions a particular landscape that people in countries all over the world almost universally find beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENIS DUTTON TED TALK)

DENIS DUTTON: It's a kind of Hudson River School landscape featuring open spaces, there's presence of water directly in view, indications of animal or bird life, as well as diverse greenery.

NANCY ETCOFF: All of these things are signs that this environment can sustain life, so we need a water source; flowering plants suggests a future of food, fruit, and honey.

RAZ: So this is Nancy Etcoff.

ETCOFF: I'm an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School.

RAZ: And Nancy studies the science of beauty. Do we need beauty to live? To survive?

ETCOFF: Yes. I believe that beauty is a very fast instinctual response. It's a very inspiring response. From our basic motivations to live and survive to our need for experiences of awe and pleasure, and a sense of aspiration of what might be perfect in the world. Beauty draws us in. We can't stop looking or listening or touching or thinking about the beautiful. And it takes us outside of ourselves and it motivates us. And so I believe that beauty is essential to life and to happiness.

RAZ: Denis Dutton gave his TED Talk back in 2010, and unfortunately he died later that year. But we wanted to dig a bit deeper into his talk, so we called Nancy Etcoff. She's also been on the TED stage and she's very familiar with Denis Dutton's work.

RAZ: Denis makes his point in his talk, right, that we like certain kinds of landscapes and that that's a very primal thing. Is that true?

ETCOFF: Yes. I believe it is, and often people want to be up on a hill because they want to have the prospect, the ability to see far, in terms of understanding what resources are available, what predators may be out there, what dangers.

RAZ: Except our brains translate that into beauty.

ETCOFF: Yes. And we don't think about that consciously. So when people buy a house looking out over green and lush valley and lakes and rivers, they won't think my unconscious mind, my ancestors, would see this as a place where they could prosper and survive and hunt and gather, and wouldn't have to move and face drought and scarcity. They're thinking, this looks good to me. You know, I can get a lot of money back for a house like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENIS DUTTON TED TALK)

DUTTON: But someone might argue, that's natural beauty. How about artistic beauty?

RAZ: So here's Denis Dutton's take from his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENIS DUTTON TED TALK)

DUTTON: Tastes for both natural beauty and for the arts travel across cultures with great ease. Beethoven is adored in Japan. Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints; Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures in British museums, while Shakespeare is translated into every major language of the Earth. Or just think about American jazz or American movies, they go everywhere. How can we explain this universality? The best answer lies in trying to reconstruct a Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes. We can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. Beauty is nature's way of acting at a distance, so to speak. I mean, you can't expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape. It would hardly do to eat your baby or your lover. So evolution's trick is to make them beautiful, to have them exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.

RAZ: Even ancient tools like those teardrop-shaped axes, those obsidian stones, you know, you see in museums, they may look kind of crude but at some point Denis Dutton says people started thinking, you know, I should make this beautiful. And actually, I have to make this beautiful, as in the survival of our species may depend on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENIS DUTTON TED TALK)

DUTTON: Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human history, tools fashioned to function as what Darwinians call fitness signals. That is to say, displays that are performances, like the peacock's tail, except that unlike hair and feathers the hand axes are consciously cleverly crafted. Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities. Intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness, and sometimes access to rare materials. You know, it's an old line but it has been shown to work - why don't you come up to my cave so I can show you my hand axes?

(LAUGHTER)

DUTTON: From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent, innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well. So the next time you pass by a jewelry shop window displaying a beautifully cut teardrop-shaped stone, don't be so sure it's just your culture telling you that that sparkling jewel is beautiful. Your distant ancestors loved that shape and found beauty in the skill needed to make it. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No. It's deep in our minds. It's a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendents for as long as the human race exists. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Denis Dutton. He passed away in 2010. You can see his whole talk at TED.com. It is truly a beautiful experience with very, very cool graphics.

Okay so, beautiful objects and landscapes and stuff, but what about humans? What about the people we find beautiful? Who decides that? Well, this is where Nancy Etcoff comes in.

ETCOFF: One way is if we have taste makers. And so a lot of the models that we see are kind of odd-looking, because as we've had more and more media spread, there's often interest in someone you haven't seen before or a look you haven't seen before. Maybe that isn't the person you would've chosen as the most beautiful, but they've been put forth in the culture that way, so yes they can kind of jump to the top in beauty. In terms of someone becoming beautiful, you'll see that as people are really liked, respected, and loved particularly, they will appear more beautiful to the people that love them. Where if you look at long-term couples, people will tend to rate their mates very highly, far above what perhaps other people might. And so there's some alchemy involved when you love someone where their features become imbued with a lot of emotion for you and are seen as beautiful. But if you look at extreme beauty, it's often an exaggeration. And particularly with women, much less so with men, it's an exaggeration of their femininity. And so, you know, clear skin and thick lustrous hair, an hourglass shape in a young woman.

RAZ: But I mean that's changed, right, like what we think of as beautiful, at least in this country or in the West, is different than what we thought 50, 100, 500 years ago.

ETCOFF: Yes. And that's part two. People around the world will love clear skin and thick lustrous hair, but the environment around us feeds us ideas about what within that very broad category of attractive to beautiful we are going to focus on right now. And so for example, throughout evolutionary history someone as thin as the top models now would look sickly. They would not be attractive. So things do change.

RAZ: Nancy Etcoff. You can see her TED Talk at TED.com. Her latest book is called, "Survival of the Prettiest."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.