Wired for Success

How to fulfill your potential

"I'm Successful Because I'm Beautiful" — How We Discriminate

Physical attractiveness can determine success in life

We can’t all be  Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, or sculpted like a 6 foot 5 inch Olympic athelete, but what we may lack in looks, we can make up in intelligence or personality. Or so the common argument goes, which may be more myth than fact.

The British National Child Development study conducted by Daniel Nettle of the Open University shows that the taller men are, the less likely they were to be single or childless, concluding that taller men are deemed more sexually attractive and more likely to find a mate. “In choosing a husband, size matters,” Dr. Nettle argues, echoing a well-known phrase. A study by researchers at the University of Florida, the University of North Carolina and the University of Pittsburgh found tall people earned considerably more money throughout their careers than shorter workers. Not that all men who are successful are necessarily tall or attractive. For example, Bill Gates is 5 foot 9 inches; Jack Welch at 5 feet 8 inches and billionaire Jim Pattison at barely 5 feet 7 inches. Most male movie stars such as Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson are well below the average male height.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Researchers at the London School of Economics studied 52,000 people in the U.K. and U.S., and their results were conclusive: Attractive men have IQs 13.6 points above average, while attractive women score 11.4 points higher. “Physical attractiveness is significantly positively associated with general intelligence,” said the lead researcher, Satoshi Kanazawa. The research was published in the professional journal Intelligence. In what many would regard as a controversial perspective, Kanazawa says, “our contention that beautiful people are more intelligent is purely scientific,” adding, “it is not a prescription for how to great or judge others.”

According to Dr. Gordon Patzer, who has concluded 3 decades of research on physical attractiveness, human beings are hard-wired to respond more favorably to attractive people: “Good-looking men and women are generally regarded to be more talented, kind, honest and intelligent than their less attractive counterparts.” Patzer contends, “controlled studies show people go out of their way to help attractive people—of the same sex and opposite sex—because they want to be liked and accepted by good-looking people.”  Even studies of babies show they will look more intently and longer at attractive faces, Patzer argues.

Other studies, such as those by K.K. Dion and colleagues and A.G. Miller have found that people tend to think that more attractive people are also happier, outgoing, successful, kinder and have more positive traits. This is often reflected in myths and fairy tales throughout our history.

Have you ever noticed that in movies and TV shows, people in leadership positions are more attractive? Rice University professor Mikki Hebi’s research shows that “how your face looks can significantly influence the success of an interview.” Further, he found that “good-looking bosses were found to be more competent, collaborative and better delegators than their less attractive counterparts.”

Charles Feng of Stanford University, writing in the Journal of Young Investigators, contends as far back as Plato in ancient Greece, he wrote about the ideal proportions of a woman’s face. Today, science has demonstrated that symmetry has been proven to be inherently attractive to the human eye, in terms of the similarity between  the left and right sides of the face. Victor Johnson of New Mexico State University used a program called FacePrints, which shows viewers facial images of variable attractiveness in which viewers rate the images as a perfect 10 out of 10 in attractiveness were those images of almost perfect symmetry.

A University of Louisville study gave viewers a similar test, which included photos of Asians, Latinos and other ethic groups from 13 different countries. The results were the same, with respect to symmetry. Other research has pointed to men’s preference for women with a low waist-to-hip ration (WHRs).

Duke University researchers John Graham and his colleagues found CEOs are more likely than non-CEOs to be rated as competent looking. The team found that CEOs rated competent just by their appearance tended to higher incomes. A Tufts University study by psychologists Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady found a random sample of people could rate the competence, dominance, likeability , maturity and trustworthiness just by examining the facial photographs of CEOs.

Elaine Wong and her team at the University of Wisconsin analyzed photos of 55 male CEOs of large companies and the companies’ return on assets. The study found that companies with CEOs who have a higher facial width relative to facial height perform better financially. The group included former CEOs Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines and Bob Allen of AT&T. Similarly, researchers at the University of Toronto and University of California found that female faces were deemed most attractive if the vertical distance between the eyes and the mouth was 36% of the face’s length and the horizontal distance between the eyes was 46% of the facial width.

A University of British Columbia study found that people identify the personality traits of people who are physically attractive more accurately than others during short encounters. The study showed a positive bias toward attractive people. “If people think Jane is beautiful and she is very organized and somewhat generous, people will see her as more organized and generous than she really is," says lead researcher Jeremy Biesanz. The researchers argue that people are motivated to pay closer attention to beautiful people.

Daniel Hamermesh, author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, argues the belief that attractiveness is subjective is a myth: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Hamermesh writes, “but most beholders view beauty similarly.” Hamermesh also argues that unattractive individuals are at a “disadvantage,” in the same way those might be physically disabled or lacking intelligence, and therefore are vulnerable to discrimination. So during a recession such as we have been experiencing, attractive people will have a better chance of keeping of finding a job, and securing credit than less attractive people, he contends. This creates legal issues, he says, for less attractive people tend to sue for compensation for potential loss of earnings.

Hamermesh contends his research shows that attractive people charm interviewers, get hired and promoted faster, are more likely to make more sales and get paid better. You would think that the importance of attractiveness depends on the type of occupation—for example, being an actor, entertainer or broadcaster. But Hamermesh says it applies to all occupations, but more in some than others.

Some would argue that making judgments based on physical attractiveness is not a bad thing, particularly for women. Catherine Hakim, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, and author of the book, Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, advances a controversial perspective, suggesting professional women should use their “erotic capital”—beauty, sex appeal, charm, dress sense, liveliness, and fitness—to get ahead at work. Hakim is an expert on women’s employment and theories of female status in society. According to her, the “beauty premium” is an important economic factor in our careers, citing a U.S. survey that found good-looking lawyers earn between 10-12% more than less attractive colleagues. “Meritocracies are supposed to champion intelligence, qualifications and experience. But physical and social attractiveness deliver substantial benefits in all social interaction—making a person more persuasive, able to secure the co-operation of colleagues, attract customers and sell products,” she writes in a column for a London newspaper.

Dario Maestripieri, a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology and neurobiology at the University of Chicago, writing in Psychology Today.com, argues that the reason we favor attractive people is “good looking people are more appealing as potential sex partners, and other people choose to interact with them…so as to increase the chances to have sex with them” This ends up in subtle biases in many forms from buying to hiring.

Feng argues that “attractive people tend to be more intelligent, better adjusted, and more popular. This is described as the halo effect…attractive people are indeed more successful.” On the other hand, Feng says, another explanation is that “we automatically categorize others before having an opportunity to evaluate their personalities, based on cultural stereotypes, which say attractive people must be intrinsically good, and less attractive people must be inherently bad.” He cites the work of Elliot Anderson, a social psychologist at Stanford University who believes self-fulfilling prophesy—in which a person’s confident self-perception, further perpetuated by healthy feedback from others—plays a role in success.

There are detractors and critics of the cited research, however. There is no evidence that these results are actually favored in evolutionary terms, argues Adam Eyre-Walker from the Center for the Study of Evolution at the University of Sussex, contending that it may be instead the influence of culture: “We are taught to look upon tall men and small women as desirable, he says. So our preference for attractive people has been culturally created and not hard-wired in the human species.

The question for many is “Is it fair?”  Hamermesh believes it is a form of discrimination, not unlike other forms of discrimination.

Whether we like it or not, and whether it’s less a case of cause and effect than correlation, in Western culture, which is highly influenced by media and advertising, research shows beauty matters; it pervades our society and how we choose our leaders, our loved ones and friends, bosses and co-workers. On the other hand, making judgments and decisions about people in terms of relationships, hiring, promotion and compensation solely based upon physical attractiveness—or even being influenced by it—is clearly discriminatory and ultimately harmful. The question remains, what is to be done about it?

 

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

more...

Subscribe to Wired for Success

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.