What can we see in a face?

Certainly we see the result of genes, either felicitous or unfortunate. But can we also see personality? Earning potential? The soul?

Those are the sorts of questions that occupied a multidisciplinary group (made up of surgeons, psychologists, ethicists, lawyers, even an English professor) recently, in what was thought to be the first U.S. academic meeting on appearance and identity.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Human Appearance, which studies how the way we look affects our lives, hosted the two-day event.

Most of the discussions and presentations centered on the relationship between who we are inside and how we look outside. Superficial as it may seem to care deeply about our looks, it’s clear that our appearance is inextricably linked with who we imagine ourselves to be — and how others react to us.

“We like to have good-looking people around us, and we pay for it,” said Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas professor who studies the economics of beauty. Better looking people are paid more, he said. They’re more likely to win elections. They’re even happier. (That helps explain why there were 14.6 million cosmetic procedures in the United States last year.)

Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to quantify human perfection. And plastic surgeons sometimes rely on those standards to determine how far out a chin or nose should jut. But Hamermesh said there’s no formula for deciding who’s beautiful and who isn’t.

What’s interesting is that we know beauty when we see it and we generally agree about it.

Studies have shown that only a very small percentage of us are considered strikingly handsome or beautiful. A similar small percentage are considered homely. Most of us — 51.6 percent of women and 58.7 percent of men — are considered average.

Jesse Taylor is a plastic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania who works with children born with facial defects. Taylor is intrigued by how we balance emotional health and physical beauty and where we draw the line between a rational and an unhealthy desire to improve appearance.

“In my mind, there’s a level of appreciation for one’s appearance that is perhaps good, perhaps reasonable and perhaps healthy,” Taylor said, “and then there’s an extension where a concentration on one’s appearance can be very unhealthy, ugly.”

A recent University of Pennsylvania review of studies on the psychological effect of cosmetic procedures found positive results among, at least among the few studies that met high scientific standards. In those studies, patients reported that they felt better about themselves after procedures such as face-lifts, nose jobs and Botox injections.

But feeling better might not be enough for some people.

David Sarwer, a psychologist with the university, said that doctors should consider screening for patients with body dysmorphic disorder, an obsession with relatively small flaws.

These patients “come in assuming that they’re going to feel better about themselves when you successfully perform their treatment, and the evidence tells us they don’t,” he said. One study found that the disorder did not improve in 91 percent of patients after surgery and got worse in 5.4 percent.

While the quest for beauty is likely to continue, Sarwer urged medical professionals to realize that looks aren’t everything.

Beauty, he said, isn’t just a collection of physical attributes. It’s also “how we dress, how we carry ourselves, our soul and the spirit we project.”