It doesn’t always pay to be pretty

The beautiful people have it all, or so we’re usually told. According to research, they’re seen as friendlier, more intelligent, and they earn more. But a pair of new journal articles tells a different story, outlining some contexts in which being pretty doesn’t pay.

Maria Agthe and her team had 400 students appraise one of four job candidates based on his or her CV, with their photo attached. Although the detailed CVs suggested all the candidates were equally qualified for the job, appearances affected the results. Participants judging a candidate of the opposite sex showed the positive bias you’d expect for highly attractive candidates, being more likely to recommend them for the job. By contrast, participants judging a same-sex candidate showed the opposite pattern, exhibiting a negative bias towards same-sex good lookers. This pattern was mediated partially by the desire for social contact with the candidates – that is, participants were more likely to say they wanted to work with and be friends with opposite-sex beauties, but showed the opposite pattern for good-looking, same-sex candidates. Men and women were similarly prone to negative bias against attractive specimens of their own sex (the effect size was -.5 and -.39, respectively).

The investigation continued with another set of participants appraising candidates shown in a video interview, and again there was a negative bias against attractive same-sex candidates. A final study with yet more participants included a measure of their self-esteem. This showed that high self-esteem participants displayed a positive bias not only towards attractive opposite-sex candidates but also towards attractive candidates of their own sex. Agthe and her colleagues said this suggests the usual negative bias against same-sex beautiful people is all to do with the threat they represent, a threat that those with high self-esteem are immune to.

What are the practical implications of all this? Agthe’s team said that the practice of including photos with CVs should be discouraged (it’s standard practice to include a photo in several countries including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland), and that assessment panels should be comprised of a mix of men and women, to help cancel out any beauty-based biases.

Coincidentally, another new journal paper has looked at the interaction between attractiveness, gender and forgiveness. April Phillips and Cassandra Hranek had dozens of heterosexual college students imagine a hypothetical scenario in which they were let down by a female student with whom they were meant to be giving a joint class presentation. Participants were shown a picture of this “offender” and told that she either had or hadn’t apologised. So long as she apologised, male participants were more likely to forgive an attractive female offender than an apologetic unattractive one. But female participants showed the opposite pattern, being more likely to forgive an apologetic unattractive female student. A follow-up study replicated this result and found that women were more forgiving of an unattractive female student because they found her apology more sincere, whilst men thought the same thing about the attractive offender’s apology.

“For female offenders, being attractive can be an asset or a hindrance, depending on the gender of the victim,” the researchers said. “A male victim, who might want to pursue a relationship with her in the future, can preserve this possibility if he is willing to offer forgiveness in some circumstances, whereas a female victim who perceives the offender to be a potential rival might be less likely to offer forgiveness.”

ResearchBlogging.orgAgthe, M., Sporrle, M., and Maner, J. (2011). Does Being Attractive Always Help? Positive and Negative Effects of Attractiveness on Social Decision Making. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (8), 1042-1054 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211410355

PHILLIPS, A. and HRANEK, C. (2011). Is beauty a gift or a curse? The influence of an offender’s physical attractiveness on forgiveness. Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2011.01370.x

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

3 thoughts on “It doesn’t always pay to be pretty”

  1. This suggests when I am going to a job interview / bidding for work I should find out whether the decision maker is male or female. If male, I should dress up, wash my hair, put on make-up; if female, I should dress down, muss up my hair, and leave off the make-up!

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