Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

What a Pretty Face Can’t Tell You

What we learn (and think we learn) based on others' physical attractiveness.

Just what, exactly, can we learn from a pretty face? 

Because despite axiomatic warnings to the contrary, when we meet other people we spend an awful lot of time judging books by their covers.  Encounter someone attractive, and it’s hard for us to look away.  But it’s even more difficult for us to refrain from drawing bigger-picture conclusions about what type of person we think we're dealing with.

Indeed, in a recently published study, Israeli researchers set out to test two questions related to our tendency to make assumptions based on physical appearance: 1) What are the characteristics we typically associate with attractive others? 2) What are the characteristics actually predicted by physical attractiveness?

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In their study, 118 female “targets” agreed to be filmed for 60 seconds while speaking in front of a camera.  Each of these videos was subsequently shown to 1 of 118 “judges” (both male and female) who evaluated the target’s physical attractiveness, and then rated her on a variety of personality traits and personal values.

What did the judges’ responses reveal?  Namely that they thought they learned a fair amount about the target’s personality just based on the brief snippet of video they had seen.  Specifically, the more physically attractive a target was rated, the more conscientious, open to experience, and extraverted the judges believed her to be.  And these conclusions related to target attractiveness were no different among female and male judges.

But were these appearance-based inferences accurate?  In a word, no.  Because each target also completed a personality inventory of her own, enabling researchers to examine how her self-reported traits matched up with those estimated by the judges.  And none of these characteristics as reported by targets themselves were significantly related to their level of perceived physical attractiveness.  In other words, contrary to judges’ assumptions, the physically attractive targets were no more conscientious, open to experience, or extraverted than those targets who were viewed as less attractive.

Interestingly, what was related to how attractive a target appeared to be were her values.  Those targets who were seen as physically attractive reported placing greater personal value on traditionalism and conformity to societal expectation.  Which makes some sense, since it’s certainly easier to be seen as good-looking when one adheres to various social norms regarding style, beauty, and the like.

In short, this study illustrates that while people seem to believe that attractive women possess a variety of socially desirable traits, the actual links between appearance and personality are tenuous at best.  Rather, what we can learn about others based on attractiveness level has more to do with their values and the premium they place on following societal convention.

Not that these data likely mean an end anytime soon to our ready tendency to judge a book by its cover.  Or to simultaneously value, envy, and objectify physical beauty.  But it’s nonetheless a conclusion worth making: usually, the most accurate way to figure out what a pretty face has to tell you is to have an actual conversation with the person who’s wearing it.

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Like this post? Then see the website for Sam's book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!).  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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