Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

When Being Beautiful Backfires

Does it always pay to be pretty?

It pays to be pretty.

Or so we've been told by life experience as well as research finding. Better looking people get the benefit of the doubt, get away with bad behavior, and make more money than everyone else. Even babies spend more time staring at faces that the rest of us deem attractive.

So while I'd hardly expect the following news to start the telethon phone banks ringing off the hook with sympathy, it's interesting to note that a new research study demonstrates that there are at least some circumstances in which being beautiful backfires.

This isn't an entirely new development, either. In a classic study from 1975, researchers from the University of Maryland presented participants with the summary of a criminal trial, including the defendant's demographic information and a photograph. Some of the participants were given a photo of an attractive woman (according to consensus opinion of those who evaluated it). Others were given the photo of an unattractive woman.

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As I alluded to above, results indicated that the attractive defendant was more likely to get away with... well, OK, not murder, but burglary at least. On average, both male and female respondents recommended more lenient sentences for the attractive burglar than for the unattractive burglar.

But interestingly, when the defendant had taken advantage of her good looks in order to commit her crime, this pattern of results reversed. That is, other participants were asked to read a similar set of crime facts, but this time for a case involving a swindle in which the defendant seduced a man and then took his money. Just like the burglar, the con woman was accused of making off with $2,000 of someone else's property. But in the swindle, the attractive woman was treated more harshly than the unattractive woman, as both male and female mock jurors were apparently eager to punish someone for using her powers of beauty for bad rather than good.

When else might beauty backfire? Well, according to a paper in this month's issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, it doesn't happen only to handsome con artists. Across three different studies, researchers in Germany and the U.S. found that being attractive can be a double-edged sword when it comes to applying for a job as well.

In their first study, participants were asked to evaluate the application of a candidate for an open editorial position at a magazine. As in the jury study, some of the respondents were given a photo of attractive candidate, while others were given a relatively unattractive photo. Common sense–and previous research findings–would suggest that, whether consciously or not, respondents would be more positively inclined toward the attractive candidates. And, indeed, when evaluating an opposite-sex candidate, that's exactly what researchers found.

But... and you knew there'd be a but... the opposite pattern emerged for evaluations of same-sex candidates. Both male and female respondents gave lower ratings for the attractive same-sex applicant than they did for the less attractive applicant, even though their qualifications were exactly the same. In a second study, the researchers found similar results for evaluations of videotaped college admission interviews.

Why the "pretty penalty" for job and college applicants with same-sex evaluators? Well, respondents simply expressed less desire for future interaction with attractive people of their own sex. The men seemed threatened by the idea of having good-looking men around, and same for the women when it came to attractive women–an idea that has certainly been bandied about before at many a watercooler and bar, but one that still serves as an important and underrated caveat to the notion that beauty is always rewarded.

Indeed, this threat explanation gains even more currency when you consider the paper's third study, which found that the tendency to judge attractive people of the same sex more harshly is particularly strong among individuals who, themselves, are low in self-esteem. The effect of appearance on evaluations gets smaller for respondents with moderate self-esteem, and goes away entirely for high-self-esteem participants.

So as it is with much of human nature, our assumption that it pays to be pretty isn't as open-and-shut a case as you might think. There is something to the "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful" idea (see clip below), at least when the potential hater in question is the same sex as you. It would seem that it takes a fairly secure sense of self-confidence to look past the potential threat posed by attractive same-sex others.

I know, I know... I can hear you playing the world's smallest violin in sympathy for the heartbreaking burden carried by the überbeautiful. But just remember that there's more to the psychology of physical appearance than appears at first glance. While beauty may very well be in the eye of the beholder, sometimes they also beholdin' it against you.

 

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Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

 

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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