By Emma Young
Physically attractive people are routinely judged to be “superior” in other ways — to be more trustworthy, for example, and honest, and intelligent. However, evidence for the unwarranted “attractiveness halo” effect has tended to come from studies that have involved snap-judgements with no feedback or repercussions for the people doing the judging. Gayathri Pandey and Vivian Zayas at Cornell University, US, wanted to explore how this bias plays out in the longer term, when contradicted by actual data. If, say, we’re given information that an attractive investor is actually losing us money, while an unattractive investor is securing profits, surely we’ll quickly drop that bias in relation to these individual people at least? Alarmingly, the pair’s new paper in the British Journal of Psychology suggests not.
In an initial study, 91 students were each shown four photos of purported “financial partners” (all of the same gender). Two of the composite faces had independently been rated as attractive and two as unattractive. The students were given a hypothetical $2000 and told to make as much money as possible. Across 50 trials with all male partners and another 50 with all female partners, they had to click on a face to choose one with whom to invest the money, and each time, they got feedback as to whether they’d lost or gained money.
Before they started, the students were informed that some of the partners would be more helpful than others. They were also encouraged to try them all, to find out which were better and which worse. What they were not told was that there were in fact two equally disadvantageous partners (who delivered some relatively large immediate gains but smaller long-term profits or even long-term losses) — one attractive and one unattractive — and two advantageous partners (who conferred better long-term profits), again, one attractive and one not.
As expected, the students started out favouring the attractive partners. But even after receiving 50 trials’ worth of feedback about the performance of each individual, they were still swayed by attractiveness. In fact, they preferred the attractive-disadvantageous partner over the unattractive-advantageous partner. They also reported finding the attractive partners more helpful. (There was some evidence of improved performance in the second block of trials, though the team’s analysis suggests that this reflected better use of the feedback, rather than getting significantly better at discounting attractiveness.)
Perhaps 50 trials weren’t enough for the participants to accurately discriminate between helpful vs unhelpful partners, and discount attractiveness, the researchers reasoned. So they ran another experiment, this time with 135 participants who each completed 100 trials (with either all male or all female partners).
The results were different — but not drastically so. As the participants progressed through the 100 rounds of feedback, they did come to show a preference for the advantageous partners. However, after suffering a loss, they were still quicker to return to an attractive vs unattractive partner, and by the end, the attractive-disadvantageous partner was still as popular a choice as the unattractive-advantageous one. “Even with more opportunity to learn about partners’ profitability, time did not appreciably moderate the effect of attractiveness,” the researchers write.
The participants were asked afterwards about how trustworthy they perceived the four partners to be. The attractive two were clearly favoured. In fact, the researchers’ analysis suggests that a perceived association between attractiveness and trustworthiness explained the results — we seem to use attractiveness as a signal of trustworthiness, and rely on it, even in the face of financial losses (albeit hypothetical ones).
It’s possible of course that with more trials, which could provide a clearer picture of trends in financial gains and losses, the attractiveness bias would have been eliminated. Only further research will tell. And as the researchers themselves note, a study that involved American college students, just White faces and hypothetical rather than real money is only a starting point for research in this area, rather than the final word. However, the new work certainly does suggest that the attractiveness halo colours our judgements, at a cost to ourselves, for far longer than might have been assumed.