Beautiful people are all around us: on billboards, on TV and at the movies—some of them even inhabit our everyday lives.
Great beauty in another person inspires all kinds of emotions: admiration, desire, hope, despair and sometimes envy.
So what is the psychological effect of beauty and how do other people react to it? In fact being beautiful isn’t all good, or so the psychological research suggests. Here are both sides of the coin, first five pleasures and then five pains of being beautiful.
Five pleasures of being beautiful
1. What is beautiful is good
In many situations we automatically defer to beauty, assuming that along with beauty come all sorts of other positive characteristics. We have a tendency to think beautiful people are funnier, more friendly, more intelligent, more exciting, in possession of better social skills, are sexually warmer, are more interesting, poised and even more independent.
These sorts of judgements have been tested over-and-over again in the laboratory and elsewhere. This is a great example of the so-called ‘halo effect‘: when global evaluations about a person bleed over into our judgements about their specific traits.
2. More desired
There’s a whole stack of research on mate selection and attractiveness. You won’t find the headline result at all surprising: on pure looks alone we prefer partners who are more beautiful.
Of course that assumes that everything else is equal, which it normally isn’t.
3. Better persuaders
Good-looking people make better persuaders (Chaiken, 1979). This may be because attractive people tend to be better communicators and possess more confidence or just because we believe in beauty. Whatever the reason, beauty can persuade us to change our minds.
4. Get paid more
At work attractive people can receive all kinds of benefits. First of all they may get higher starting salaries, perhaps because their qualifications are perceived as more solid and their potential as greater (this is the halo effect workings its magic). Then, later on, they have an advantage in promotions.
5. Higher self-esteem
Not surprisingly, given all the above advantages, good-looking people also have higher self-esteem. What with all those dates and the extra money, is it any wonder they think better of themselves than their less fortunate peers?
Five pains of being beautiful
Now for the bad news about being beautiful. The beauty bias is probably not as strong as some have suggested and not as powerful as we might imagine (Eagly et al., 1991). For example, when it comes to income, in most lines of work it’s better to be smarter than more attractive (Judge et al., 2009). The same goes for persuasion, self-esteem and even attraction: other personal qualities can easily trump beauty.
Psychologists have also begun to uncover the dark side of being beautiful. Given what we already know about the beautiful it may be difficult to have much sympathy, but here are five pains:
1. Less likely to be hired (sometimes)
Although beauty can help in the search for a job, it’s not always true. When employers are making a decision about someone of the same sex, they can let their jealousy get the better of them.
One recent study has suggested that people who are highly attractive are at a disadvantage in the hiring process when the decision-makers are the same sex (Agthe et al., 2011). It seems we perceive beautiful people who are the same sex as a threat.
2. Beauty is beastly
Similarly there’s evidence that female beauty can be a problem in jobs with strong gender stereotypes. For example a beautiful woman may be at a disadvantage when applying for a job which is associated with masculinity, like a prison guard or a mechanical engineer (Johnson et al, 2010).
The same doesn’t seem to be true for attractive men. They can happily apply for jobs as nurses, lingerie salespersons or HR managers without their beauty counting against them.
3. Perceived to be less talented
The halo effect tells us that when we judge more attractive members of the opposite sex, we generally assume they’re more talented than those who are less attractive. This happens even though what they do or say is no cleverer than less attractive people.
But this changes when it’s members of the same sex. In a study by Anderson and Nida (1978) highly attractive people of the same sex were judged as less talented than average-looking people.
4. Lucky to be pretty
If beautiful people are successful, is it because of their talent, or is it just their looks? After all, people are lucky to be beautiful and we know all the advantages of that.
Research finds that when judging their own sex, people are more likely to think beautiful people’s success is down to their beauty, not their talent (Forsterling et al., 2007). So you’re lucky to be pretty, but probably just rely on that rather than talent.
5. Social rejection
Although attractive people are generally more popular socially, there’s some evidence that very attractive people can experience social rejection from members of their own sex (Krebs and Adinolfi, 1978).
People in relationships also protect themselves from beauty by ignoring it. Research shows that when we’re thinking about love we automatically ignore attractive members of the opposite sex, probably to protect our feelings about our long-term partner (Maner et al., 2008).
Gender and jealousy
Most of the research has been done on heterosexuals but it’s possible similar biases operate for gay people. For both gay and straight, the extent of the biases probably depends on how attractive you are (or at least how attractive you perceive yourself to be). People who are themselves attractive probably don’t feel as defensive around other attractive people, so the biases are likely to be weaker for them.
Although we all know about the benefits of being beautiful, it’s easy to forget the pitfalls. This psychological research is a reminder that beauty can be threatening. It can threaten our relationships, our work and our image of ourselves. We admire it and defer to it, but sometimes we have to defend ourselves against it.
Published: 16 August 2011