Empirical studies by evolutionary and social psychologists have shown repeatedly that, while “attractiveness” may be in the eye of the beholder, most beholders’ eyes are essentially the same. Of course there are individual differences, and some factors that are a matter of individual taste. Nonetheless, the things that most people agree on about beauty far outnumber the things that they disagree on.
The most well-studied and commonly-accepted factors that influence attractiveness have to do with facial symmetry and proportions.
As a result, it should be possible to use these universal factors to objectively determine which member of the band One Direction is the best-looking. Again, it should be stressed that some people may be particularly tickled by Harry Styles’s stage presence and flirtatious manner, others may melt under Zayne’s moody gaze, and still others may prefer Niall, because they have a thing for the Irish.
But none of these quirks or personality preferences is relevant to the question of which member of One Direction is objectively the hottest.
The most well-studied and commonly-accepted factors that influence attractiveness have to do with facial symmetry and proportions: size of, and distance between, the eyes, the height and position of the ears, the relative widths of the nose, mouth and face, and so on.
Several websites and apps offer to calculate an overall attractiveness “score” based on these measurements. Each service functions in essentially the same way: you upload a photo, and then use the mouse to identify certain “key” locations on the face so that the application can then measure the various distances and proportions that it needs in order to calculate an overall “attractiveness score”.
After some detailed testing of the different options available, we decided that Anaface was the most scientific and reliable. It produced relatively consistent results for individuals even across multiple photos, and also provided a detailed critique to explain why each score was as high or as low as it was.
(The closest competitor was prettyscale.com. We rejected this site, however, not only because it did not provide any detail about how the score was calculated, but also because when we tested it using a picture of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, it rated him as “pretty”, with a score of 80 out of 100.)
In order to determine the average score of each member of One Direction, we chose a typical “canonical” photo for each member, in which the subject was looking forward with a neutral expression or only a slight smile, not broad enough to show teeth. We then went through the process of uploading and scoring each member’s photo.
Member by member
Because the process of identifying the “key points” on a photo is subjective and inexact, results can vary. Since did not want any individual’s rank to be skewed by an erroneously-placed dot, we scored each photo five separate times and used the median (middle) score for each person.
The high score went to Louis Tomlinson (8.17), with Niall Horan coming in at a very close second place (8.12). The lowest score, by some margin, went to Zayn Malik, with Harry Styles and Liam Payne both in the middle.
In addition to producing a final score, Anaface also provided a detailed critique based on the measurements of the photo. Zayn Malik, for example, scored poorly because he has long ears, eyes that are too close together, and has a face and nose that are overall too wide.
Even Louis Tomlinson, with the highest score, did not come out of the review process unscathed: though his face and nose are nearly ideal, according to Anaface his mouth is too wide, and his ears are too long for his nose.
Niall Horan, coming in a close second, apparently lacks Louis Tomlinson’s horizontal symmetry, and has a face slightly too narrow and long. So says the science.
One possible limitation of this method of scoring, of course, is the fact that it relies on the subjective judgment of the user for determining where different “key points” are. In most cases, these judgments were easy and the score remained very stable even with slight variations in where the points were set.
However, it’s really anyone’s guess as to where Harry Style’s ears begin and end. This may have impacted his overall score (although it is unlikely to overcome the effect of his wide nose).
Liam Payne scored in the dead centre of the group, in terms of beauty. The algorithm was able to find one particularly nice thing to say about him, however: apparently his ears are precisely the right size for his nose.
It is worth pointing out that this score does not take into account features such as eye colour, skin colour, complexion, or hair style. Some of these factors have been shown to have a strong and consistent impact on people’s ratings of attractiveness.
For example, Ian Stephen of the University of Bristol demonstrated in several studies that rosy, yellow skin is rated as looking both healthier and more attractive.
However, hairstyles change, and hair colours change, and who can really tell what the skin colour is of any of these guys once you remove the airbrushing and make-up? Niall Horan’s ardent fans could probably argue a case that his skin tone is slightly rosier than Louis Tomlinson’s, and that therefore he should come out as being objectively more attractive than Tomlinson after all.
It would be difficult, however, to scientifically assess the relative importance of skin tone as compared to facial proportions as factors that impact attractiveness. This may be an area where more research needs to be done.
So who is objectively the most attractive member of One Direction? It is obviously a very close race between Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson; however, just as with lists of the best football teams and the best universities, in the end there can only be one winner.
Therefore, according to this study, the answer is: Louis Tomlinson.
If we are truly to be scientific about this question, we do have to talk about the issue of variability. Although Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson were clearly above the others, they were very close to each other. There were several times when the score for Tomlinson’s photo ended up lower than several of Niall Horan’s scores.
To use the language of statisticians: the result that “Louis Tomlinson scored higher than Niall Horan” was not statistically significant. If you repeated the measurements 100 times, you probably wouldn’t be able to count on Tomlinson scoring higher than Horan on a very large percentage of those trials.
This problem of variability is not just a fluke of the way attractiveness is being measured in this study, either. In the real world, in day-to-day life, we know that people look better on some days than they do on others. When two people are very close to each other in terms of their attractiveness, it is very likely that even a scientific, objective assessment of their attractiveness would put one person in the lead on one day but would put the other in the lead on a different day.
Many people have a negative emotional reaction whenever people start talking about ‘objective’ measures of attractiveness, and ranking people based on beauty.
So while it may be true that overall, and on average, Louis Tomlinson is the best-looking member of One Direction, it is also possible that he is not significantly, in the statistical sense, more attractive than Niall Horan.
The issue of variability and statistical significance when talking about attractiveness is important. Many people have a negative emotional reaction whenever people start talking about “objective” measures of attractiveness, and ranking people based on beauty. They are correct to point out that an obsession with comparing people based on physical attractiveness can lead to all sorts of undesirable psychological and cultural problems.
But the solution to these problems isn’t to deny that objective measures of attractiveness exists: it’s to use science and mathematics to point out the flaws in the way that people compare themselves to others.
For example: remember that even though some people are objectively more attractive on average than others, everybody has variability. Everybody has a distribution of scores, not a single score, that they live on a day-to-day basis. Even celebrities.
Eye of the beholder
The most frequent criticisms left in the comments on websites like Anaface sound like this: “This is stupid, everybody has different tastes! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!”
This is a nice, feel-good saying and is very effective for protecting self-esteem. But it is not supported by evidence. Study after study has shown that facial proportions and symmetry are strong influences on how people rate attractiveness across cultures, ethnicities, and socio-economic groups.
Evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico even found that women have more orgasms during sex with men who had more symmetrical faces and bodies, regardless of their level of romantic attachment or the man’s level of sexual experience.
One way to understand “attractiveness”, which involves some factors that are universal and objective and other factors that are very individual and subjective, is to think of an analogy to universities.
Different people look for different things in universities: some might prefer a small, intimate environment while others prefer large universities with sprawling campuses; some specialty universities might be famous world-wide for their arts programmes but not very good for people who want to become lawyers or doctors.
Despite these individual differences, however, it would be ridiculous to simply say: “No university is objectively better than any other! It’s all just a matter of individual taste!” Anybody who claims such a thing is being supremely ideological and disingenuous.
There really are differences between, say, the Ivy League schools and your average Community College down the street. These differences are real, and objective, and measurable.
But once you start comparing individual schools that have a similar level to one another, individual tastes might become more important. Whether one prefers Harvard, Yale or Oxford may very well be based purely on one’s own individual goals and preferences.
When comparing people of similar beauty, like the members of One Direction, personal tastes will play a larger role than normal.
The same is true of physical beauty. When comparing people of similar beauty, like the members of One Direction, personal tastes will play a larger role than normal. This is likely to be exactly why manufactured music groups like One Direction always seem to end up with very “triangulated” physical types as members: you need someone for people who like light hair, and someone for people who like dark hair; you need someone for people who like silly personalities and someone for people who like serious or brooding personalities… and so on.
But the fact is, when considering the entire world of individual variability in physical appearance, the similarities between members of One Direction far outweigh their differences. The traits that all members of One Direction have in common – their ages, their general build and fitness levels, and even the shapes of their faces – reflect those traits that are universally regarded as objectively attractive.
As a result, we don’t expect this scientific analysis to settle the question of which member of One Direction is most attractive. Just as there will always be people who prefer Reed College college over Cornell, there will always be people who think Zayn is hotter than Louis. Even if objective science begs to differ.