The raters saw either pre-surgery or post-surgery photos of a patient, but never both. Without knowing the purpose of the study, they were asked to estimate the patient's age and to rate their attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. They were given no criteria for determining attractiveness so as not to influence their thinking.
Although patients were deemed to look three years younger on average after plastic surgery, any bump in attractiveness was deemed statistically insignificant.
Zimm took pains to note that the findings do not reflect a real-world context, in which patients' relatives and acquaintances will have a very clear frame of reference for assessing both age and beauty. He also suggested that a much larger study would be needed to nail down the impact of facial plastic surgery.
What's more, asking raters to assess age and attractiveness at the same time might have created a "kind of subconscious attractiveness bias," Zimm said.
Still, "at the end of the day the goal is to make people happy, so we have to know what's possible in order to determine if any particular patient is someone I can help," he said.
But a Chicago plastic surgeon said the study is meaningless in that regard.
"Certainly when I see a new patient I have to decide if what the patient is after is achievable or even realistic," said Dr. Laurie Casas, a senior clinician educator at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. "And it's a very complex process because the perception of beauty has to be evaluated by both the surgeon and the patient."
The end game is that they want to look more attractive, but this study doesn't get me anywhere with that process because it's impossible to make any sense out of the data," Casas said.
Without a common understanding of what a 1-to-10 attractiveness score actually means, there's no frame of reference, she said. "It's totally subjective, so the results have no meaning," she said.