Like most people, I went through a rather awkward adolescent period, and most of this awkwardness was concentrated on the top of my head.
In the eighth grade, for example, I proudly sported a "rattail" buzz cut, which resembled something like an inside-out mullet with gossamer strands of Sun-In bleached hair down to my shoulders. In my junior year of high school, my friend, Todd, whose father was a professional barber, convinced me to let him cut my hair over the bathroom sink. What's the worst that could happen, I thought, his father's a barber, right? By the end of the evening, my hair looked like it'd been cut by, well, exactly the person who'd cut it—an untrained, overly eager 16-year-old. So, being a man of extremes, I took a Bic razor to it instead. But this Right Said Fred look (in keeping with the early '90s context of the story) garnered too many unwelcome glares and comparisons with Mr. Clean, not to mention that my conservative Jewish grandmother couldn't bear to look at me—so my overcompensated solution was to simply let it grow, and grow, and grow.
By the time I graduated from high school, I don't know what I had on my head, but looking at pictures now, it appears as though it was either about to give live birth or fly off at any moment.
I won't belabor this any longer than I have to, so I'll leave out my excessive hair spray phase, my aesthetically notched left eyebrow, and my Vanilla Ice 'do. The thing is, I must have actually believed I looked pretty good, because I remember being genuinely surprised when an irate teenage girl, who I'd apparently really annoyed, went right for the jugular and called me "ugly" during a lunchtime squabble. I'd never been exactly pleased with my appearance, but ugly, really? Me?
In fact, findings from a recent study by Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch suggest that most people unconsciously overinflate their own physical appearance. In a well-controlled series of experiments published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Epley and Whitchurch took photos of undergraduate students with a neutral facial expression, invited these same students back to the laboratory two to four weeks later, and simply asked them to identify their actual face out of an assortment of eleven possible images. But here's the really clever part. These other images were in fact the actual face morphed to varying degrees with either an extremely attractive gender-matched composite face or unattractive targets suffering from craniofacial syndrome.
The results? On a variety of different measures, the participants were significantly more likely to choose a more attractive morphed face as being their actual face than even their nonmorphed actual face! The authors conclude, "It is perhaps of little wonder, then, that people so rarely seem to like the photographs taken of themselves. The image captured by the camera lens just doesn't match up to the image captured in the mind's eye." If you've ever been horrified to find a "bad" photo of yourself tagged on Facebook, I'm sure you can relate. The sad truth (well, for some of us it's a sadder truth than it is for others) is that that's what you really look like.
As you'll notice from my accompanying photo—which I must say looks nothing like me—the real tragedy of this story is that just when I've got a handle on hairstyles, my hairline has decided to retire into the background. But in case you're wondering, rest assured I have the necessary follicular strength in my scalp remaining for at least a dozen more glorious rattails.
In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.