The Ugliness-in-Averageness Effect: Tempering the Warm Glow of Familiarity
Mere exposure (i.e., stimulus repetition) and blending (i.e., stimulus averaging) are classic ways to increase social preferences, including facial attractiveness. In both effects, increases in preference involve enhanced familiarity. Prominent memory theories assume that familiarity depends on a match between the target and similar items in memory. These theories predict that when individual items are weakly learned, their blends (morphs) should be relatively familiar, and thus liked—a beauty-in-averageness effect (BiA). However, when individual items are strongly learned, they are also more distinguishable. This “differentiation” hypothesis predicts that with strongly encoded items, familiarity (and thus, preference) for the blend will be relatively lower than individual items—an ugliness-in-averageness effect (UiA). We tested this novel theoretical prediction in 5 experiments. Experiment 1 showed that with weak learning, facial morphs were more attractive than contributing individuals (BiA effect). Experiments 2A and 2B demonstrated that when participants first strongly learned a subset of individual faces (either in a face-name memory task or perceptual-tracking task), morphs of trained individuals were less attractive than the trained individuals (UiA effect). Experiment 3 showed that changes in familiarity for the trained morph (rather than interstimulus conflict) drove the UiA effect. Using a within-subjects design, Experiment 4 mapped out the transition from BiA to UiA solely as a function of memory training. Finally, computational modeling using a well-known memory framework (REM) illustrated the familiarity transition observed in Experiment 4. Overall, these results highlight how memory processes illuminate classic and modern social preference phenomena.