The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

When Being Attractive Can Hurt You

Is Your Manager Less Attractive Than You Are?

A variety of research studies show that attractiveness helps people in a variety of professional settings. Defendents in the criminal justice system and children in daycare get away with more lenient punishments when they are attractive, compared to when they are not.

But new research shows that there is a downside to being attractive — when people evaluating you are peers, but are not attractive themselves. Subordinates who are attractive are penalized by managers who are unattractive, according to new research by Maria Agthe, Matthias Spörrle and Jon K. Maner.

In many ways, the research confirms an intuition most of us have — while attractive people are, well, attractive, our hidden brain can also perceive them as potential threats. Interestingly, the bias was only observed among same-sex participants — meaning unattractive male managers discriminated against attractive male subordinates and unattractive female managers discriminated against attractive female subordinates.

A recent puzzle I posted on the Hidden Brain’s Facebook fan page (where all puzzles get aired first) read:

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When a manager evaluates a subordinate belonging to the same sex, the manager is most likely to give a negative review when
A) The manager is attractive and the subordinate is not
B) The subordinate is attractive and the manager is not
C) Both the manager and subordinate are attractive
D) Neither the manager nor the subordinate are attractive

The correct answer is B.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.


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