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These scientists said women wear too much makeup. Here's why they're wrong.

Snooki rocks a bold face.
Snooki rocks a bold face.
Getty Images

There's a study making the rounds that implies that women wear more makeup than they'd prefer — because they mistakenly think other people find it attractive.

You can find the paper (from The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology) here and some coverage at Time and The Atlantic. But I don't think all the study's conclusions are quite right, and some of the coverage seems overblown.

The paper does have some intriguing findings, which I'll walk you through below. But I don't think its data really says that women are wearing "too much" makeup.

There's a problem with the experiment's design. The researchers took a picture of models with bare faces. Then they told the women to apply makeup for a "night out," but photographed them in bright, day-like lighting and had people judge that.

Faces

A model with no makeup on the left, 100% makeup on the right, and a computer generated image with 50% makeup in the middle. Jones AL et al. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2014 Apr 22:1-9.


The researchers used computer imaging to produce a range of 21 faces for each model, all the way from an extrapolated -50 percent makeup to a 150 percent makeup.

Then they showed the pictures to other participants (students from Bangor University in the UK) and asked them which image they personally thought was optimally attractive as well as what they thought other people would prefer.

Overall, men and women preferred something that was roughly a 65 percent makeup face. More intriguing was that both men and women thought that other participants of both sexes would choose faces with more makeup (roughly the 70 percent to 85 percent range) than they actually did.

In the media's response, "people have really focused on females 'tying their makeup use to male expectancies' which has caused a bit of a stir across message boards. People have also missed out how both male and female observers thought other females like more cosmetics as well," lead author Alex Jones of Bangor University told me in an email. "I think that's an important point."

And why is there this difference between what people liked and thought others would like? We don't know for sure. It's possible that there's actually a gap in expectations. (Or it's possible that people felt social pressure to report that they personally liked a more natural face than they actually did.)

The participants also thought that men would like faces with somewhat more makeup than women would. However, this sex difference didn't really bear out in reality. Across the entire study, men and women responded almost identically to the faces. (The actual differences between what women versus men liked or expected other people to like was very small, a statistically significant, but tiny effect of approximately 3 percent.)

Now did these models put on more makeup than people actually find attractive? The paper's authors, as well as the Time and The Atlantic stories, assert that women are wearing too much makeup because they think that men (and women) like it. "These results suggest that women are probably wearing cosmetics to appeal to the mistaken preferences of others," the study says.

However, the women in these brightly-lit pictures were told to put on makeup for a "night out." They were wearing their night faces, likely optimized for dark night places like bars, restaurants, clubs, and movie theaters. Women often wear heavier makeup to go out at night than they would during the day. It's pretty darn common.

We don't know for sure what kinds of lighting the models were expecting to be seen in. The researchers didn't ask them. But given the possible differences between expected lighting conditions and actual lighting conditions (that's a big change in a variable), I don't think this study can tell you whether women are choosing to wear more makeup than other people find attractive.

To have any idea, models' intentions would need to be probed further. (No one asked the models what they thought of their own pictures. They may have thought, "This would look awesome by candlelight, but not like this.")

The study's authors recognize this problem ("Our participants were instructed to apply cosmetics for a 'night out' and so may have incorporated ideas of low lighting, a particular dress style, and so on"), but I don't think they do enough to account for it ("However, as demonstrated in Figure 1, there was nothing especially unusual in the way the sample of models applied cosmetics").

I asked Jones about it. "I feel fairly confident that a night out makeup look and a job makeup look didn't really differ too much for our perceptions. However, whether the results would be different for day to day makeup, I don't know — my guess is it might well be," he said. "I do agree it's a weakness."

Three men wrote this study about women's makeup. Maybe that's something to think about, too.