Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 9, Oct. 10, 2006


A biological, cultural, and interactional (BCI) model of physical attractiveness judgments

Don R. Osborn, Ph.D.


Department of Psychology

Bellarmine University

Louisville , Kentucky 40205


This article is based on a poster presented at the

16 th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Society

May 27-30, 2004, Chicago, Illinois.


This graphic model, the BCI model, integrates empirical studies and theoretical positions to present a comprehensive theory of human beauty. First encounter judgments are strongly influenced by biological and cultural factors which set certain parameters and bases for initial judgments. Then interactional experiences continuously modify the judgment’s value and the fulcrum of the judgment’s basis shifts from the target to the judge.

This paper is organized into two section. The first section, Poster Graphic Interpretation, explains how to read the figure and what the different elements of the BIC physical attractiveness model are. The second section, BIC Attractiveness Model, integrates and explains the scholarly literature which supports the BIC model.

Poster Key:

Target = the person being critiqued, judged and rated; the person who is looking to get picked up

Judge = the person doing the critiquing, judging and rating; the person who is looking to pick someone up

Poster Graphic Interpretation

This poster shows how attractiveness judgments can change over time and considers biological, cultural, and interactional factors important so it is abbreviated the BCI model of physical attractiveness. The first step in this two-part process is passing the initial Three Filters. The first filter is called Biological Attractiveness, the second Judged Attractiveness, and the final filter is Love Style. In the first filter, Filter One, the Target is rated on the biological attractiveness scale, shown at the far left of the poster. The Target’s placement on the line is solely based on biological factors. “This Target is not ugly” is the key judgment made to keep the Judge interested in moving ahead to meet the Target.

Moving to Filter Two, the Target’s judged attractiveness will depend on the Judge’s subculturally determined beauty standards and also the Judge’s personal preferences. Those two factors will determine how a judge rates any particular Target’s Attractiveness. The Trendy, Cute, and Sexy styles are the examples illustrated by the BIC model based on research on types of beauty styles. Therefore, in the example developed for the graphic, we now know that this particular Judge rates “cutesy” women like Natalie Portman over “sexy” women like Pamela Anderson and “trendy” Jessica Simpson types over all others. Keep in mind that ratings in Filter Two are changeable, easily altered because it is subjective to the Judge’s personality and reference group values. There are many differences within subcultures on what traits should define attractiveness. Some common subculture groups have been labeled as preps, thugs, hippies, jocks, rednecks, “emo”, Goths, and so on. What niche of culture the Judge and Target see themselves and the other belonging to determines how attractive they find the other and if the pair will want to move on and pass through to the last filter, filter three.

Filter Three puts objective and subjective physical appearance into a secondary role and focuses on the compatibility of the Target and the Judge. This filter is only important in judging the Target’s attractiveness after the two begin a relationship. Research has indicated that when two people form a relationship, it can be described as one of five types of love: friendship love (Storge), logical, “shopping list” love (Pragma), passionate love (Eros), possessive love (Mania), and game-playing love (Ludus). In Filter 3 the Target is critiqued based on the Judge’s love type preferences. The Judge in this example prefers friendship love most and game-playing least, so Storge is the best love style for him and Ludus is the worst. Therefore, if the Target displays the Storge Love Style, the Judge will be more than ready to move further into the relationship (illustrated by the thick green arrow). On the other hand, if the Target displays the less desirable Ludus Love Style, he will back out of the relationship (illustrated by the big red stop sign). While similar to Filter Two in emphasizing personal consonance, Filter Three is even more personally subjective because it is based on the Judge’s personal love style preferences.

With the first half of the process complete, the BIC model moves from the filters to the Life Experiences where the level of attractiveness given to the Target by the Judge fluctuates depending on events that occur over the course of the relationship. For example, the good times placed on the top part of the graphic show the Target as becoming more attractive over that time whereas the bad times located in the lower part of the graphic make the Target less attractive over that time. The final scale on the extreme right of the poster shows how the Judge finally critiques the Target’s attractiveness is based on the various Life Experiences the two encounter.

In conclusion, the Judge’s Attractiveness rating for the Target is continuously modified, but for very different reasons later in the relationship than in the beginning. The first filters are primarily based on the Target’s biological and physical attractiveness and Love Style appeal to the Judge. Later, these attributes of the Target became less influential determinants of the Judge’s attractiveness rating as the factors influencing the critiquing more closely involve the Judge’s subjective values and experiences with the Target. This change in the fulcrum of the judgment is shown by the change in the relative size of the Target and Judge between the initial impression, where the Target figure is relatively larger than the Judge to the Target’s final judged attractiveness in the post-interaction panel, where the Judge’s feelings have now become the larger determinant of the attractiveness rating of the Target.

BIC Attractiveness Model

A sufficient body of research exists on the various factors affecting physical attractiveness judgments to develop this comprehensive model which integrates these studies into a system that includes biological, cultural, target and judge factors. The studies cited suggest that once the target surpasses a threshold of biological ugliness, historical, socio-cultural and individual differences factors strongly affect a judge’s physical attractiveness judgments.

This BIC model is time dependent with biological and cultural factors setting certain parameters and bases for initial first encounter judgments. The data which shows the existence of different types of beauty (Ashmore, Solomon, & Longo, 1996) and demonstrates personality trait attributions from facial characteristics (e.g. Berry, 1991) support attractiveness judgments as involving matching targets against culturally relative, gender ideals (Adrian, 1999) which elicit initial physical attractiveness judgments. The large individual differences in physical attractiveness judgments found in some studies (e.g. Diener, Wolsic, & Fujita, 1995) may be attributable to the interaction of the different psychosexual desires of each judge (cf. Wiggins, Wiggins, & Conger, 1968) with the specific characteristics of the target (either real or imputed.) Thus physical attractiveness judgments are malleable as the target's action based impression management strategies either conforms or differs from culturally (and sub culturally) based ideal gender norms and as the target appears to offer affordances to meet the judge's specific individual needs. The shift in the origin of physical attractiveness judgments from the target to the judge in short time frame (e.g. Park and Flink, 1989) and longer time frame (Kniffen & Wilson, 2004) longitudinal zero acquaintance studies supports this analysis. Finally, if the partner/relationship’s attractiveness decreases below the judge’s comparison level for alternatives (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959) the relationship comes to an end.

The BIC model is general enough to accommodate some unsettled issues within the biologically based investigators’ viewpoints. Some of those issues include: Is the evolutionary attractiveness process directional (Cunningham, 1986) or stabilizing (Langlois & Roggman, 1990)? Is symmetry an important factor in attractiveness judgments as Grammer & Thornhill’s 1994 research suggests or is it relatively minor for humans (Rubenstein, Langlois, and Roggman, 2002)? In fact, the unresolved basic issues in the “Biology is physical attractiveness destiny” model shows the usefulness of including cultural factors in understanding physical attractiveness judgments because it increases explained variance. Even the one undisputable example of the biological beauty factor of waist-to-hip ratio mediating attractiveness judgments (Singh, 1993) has been shown to be strongly affected by cultural factors (Yu & Shepard, 1998).

From an evolutionary viewpoint, the specific criteria for beauty judgments can be seen as either a) the result of a finely honed biological discrimination process rank ordering potential mates designed to select the healthiest, most reproductively valuable mate (Buss, 1994; Symon, 1979) or b)a choice between different mating strategies influenced by individual imprinting type experiences (Penton-Volk, 2000) and attainability factors (Davis, 1983) or c) a relatively volatile, culturally and historically (Osborn, 2006) variable process, analogous to fashion, designed to produce some choice that exceeds the biological “ugliness” threshold rather than oscillating ineffectively among a multitude of similarly attractive alternative mates. The totality of the evidence suggests the old mainstream view typified by Buss and Symon has serious shortcomings and the other perspectives will provide a more fruitful basis for further research.

For example, the latest work (Hönekopp, 2006) using Kenny’s (1994) social relations model showed a way to quantify the importance of individual differences in attractiveness judgments. This research shows the previous inference that individuals strongly agree on attractiveness ratings (e.g. Cunningham, 1986; Langlois et al., 2000; Rhodes et al., 2001) is mistaken. Hönekapp demonstrates that a target’s attractiveness rating is about equally influenced by private taste, how much individuals differ in attractiveness ratings, and shared taste, how much individuals agree on attractiveness ratings. The BCI model suggests the dynamics that influence shared taste operate through subcultural beauty standards while private taste operates through individual psychosexual interests and personality similarities and complementarities, like the love style variable, between the Judge and Target..

Figure 1. Graphic BCI Model of Physical Attractiveness Judgments: Panel 1 of 2 - Early in a Relationship

When the couple first meets the Biological Attractiveness Level is a base which is then influenced by how well the Target matches the sub-cultural beauty ideals the Judge has. Assuming the threshold of “not ugly” is surpassed, the couple may explore what love means to them. The Judge’s values are the ones displayed in the graphic. Note this is really a reciprocal relational dialogue since the Target is also a Judge from his or her perspective.


Figure 2. Graphic BCI Model of Physical Attractiveness Judgments: Panel 2 of 2 -Later in a relationship

Assuming they have become a couple, they have a variety of life experiences which strongly influence how attractive the Judge sees the Target as being. Positive experiences make the Target more attractive and negative experiences make the Target less attractive. If the Target falls below the Judge’s comparison level, the alternative person the Judge could develop a relationship with, the relationship with the Target will be terminated.



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Author Notes

I would like to thank Brittany Patton for advice on the poster interpretation text, Debi Griffin and Fred Lassiter who helped produce the poster graphic, Mike Cunningham for comments on the design of the poster graphic and Bob Korn for the possibility that, ceteris paribus, culturally variable arbitrary appearance signals may provide a trigger for attractiveness judgments.

The photos used to illustrate life experiences are in the public domain and obtained through firstgov.gov. The US agency photos are from the Census Bureau, FEMA, Department of Education, and the Department of Justice web sites.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Don R. Osborn, Department of Psychology, Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY 40205 USA. E-mail drosborn@bellarmine.edu.

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