Photo by Richard Howard
George Clooney is the most handsome actor in Hollywood. Not sure you agree with me? Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeremy Wilmer can settle our dispute: We’re both right.
In a study published last fall, Wilmer and his co-authors compared people’s aesthetic preferences for faces. They found that, when asked to rate the attractiveness of a particular face, people agreed only about 50 percent of the time. The researchers also analyzed the preferences of identical and fraternal twins and concluded that neither genes nor family environment have much of an influence on whom we find attractive. In other words, it appears that our unique experiences in life determine which faces we like.
The primary focus of Wilmer’s work is “to discover as many ways as possible that individual minds and brains can be unique,” he says. His research centers on cognitive and visual mechanisms, and he is particularly interested in “the nature versus nurture question.” A previous study, for example, looked at people’s ability to recognize faces they’ve seen before. This ability (unlike our aesthetic preferences) seems to be almost entirely genetic and “mostly independent of general intellectual ability,” says Wilmer.
Much of the data for Wilmer’s projects comes from testmybrain.org, a website through which he and his collaborators provide high-quality tests that anyone can take for free. More than 1.5 million people have taken tests through the website over the last eight years. Wilmer considers the site a collaboration with the public and sees his work as having potentially broad applications. “An appreciation of the ways that individuals can vary is important in almost any domain of life, from education to business to our personal lives,” he says. “An understanding of the impact of nature and nurture on different abilities helps us to understand, for example, which types of ‘brain training’ may have promise and which types are likely to be a waste of one’s time.”
Wilmer teaches Introduction to Psychology, a course on sensation and perception, and a seminar on genes and human variation. He also loves involving students in his research; in fact, one student, Ho Lum Kwok ’13, was a co-author of the aesthetic preferences study published last fall. Wilmer fondly remembers discovering his own passion for psychology halfway through his undergraduate experience. He took a summer school course in introductory psychology, and it was “total pleasure reading,” he recalls. “I loved the scientific approach to learning about how people work.”