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The Trouble With Being Beautiful

Unjustified assumptions of vanity and narcissism.

Key points

  • The "beautiful-is-good" effect refers to the finding that people tend to perceive beautiful people as good people.
  • New research on judgments of people by their faces suggests that the perception that they're vain leads beautiful people to lose their charm.
  • Looking past someone's appearance will allow you to look at their personality, and their goodness, fairly.

When you think about a beautiful person, what are the first psychological qualities that come to mind? Without knowing anything about them, do you assume they’re intelligent, happy, successful, and sociable? Or, conversely, do you assume they’re vain, narcissistic, and self-aggrandizing?

Stereotypes about people who are physically attractive are based on assumptions that an individual’s outward appearance reflects their inner qualities. As with other stereotypes based on observable features of individuals, the ones concerning appearance are inherently flawed. However, might it be possible that certain behaviors or personal dispositions contribute to an individual’s appearance that, in turn, can contain a germ of truth?

A so-called “beautiful person” may, without all the makeup and other embellishments, be no more attractive than the average individual. Inferring that this is a vain or even narcissistic individual who pours time and effort into the way they look might not be that far off the mark. Reversing the stereotype, someone with an inherently pleasing but not artificially enhanced outward appearance might appear to you to have a modest and unassuming personality.

A person’s characteristic facial expression also contributes to their appearance. So-called “smiling eyes” may signal a high degree of agreeableness. Less easily definable, but recognizable nonetheless, is a “haughty look” that conveys an air of superiority. In these ways, personality may contribute to the perception of appearance that, in turn, influences the way that others react, perhaps overriding or supporting whatever stereotypes you associate with their level of attractiveness.

The “Beautiful-Is-Good” Effect in Psychology

According to Da Eua Han of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Sean Laurent of Pennsylvania State University, “One of the most robust and well-known findings in psychology is the ‘beautiful-is-good’ effect.” Just because the finding is well-known, however, doesn’t mean that it’s accurate, according to the authors. The key question is the meaning of “good.” The U. Illinois–Penn State research team note that if you define this quality in terms of morality, the jury is out on the matter. Instead of the overall beautiful-is-good effect, it’s more accurate to state that “beautiful seems less moral and more immoral.”

People may infer goodness in the beautiful, according to Han and Laurent, due to the “halo effect,” in which one set of positive attributes (beauty) becomes transferred to another unrelated set of positive attributes (goodness). Enhancing the halo effect is the tendency to confirm your biases by only noticing good behavior in people you’ve already assumed to be good (because they’re attractive).

For a halo effect to work, all attributes of a stereotype must be positive. Before concluding that the beautiful person is good, that individual must also be regarded as someone who isn’t vain. Once the thought creeps into your head that the person who seems so admirable is also conceited, if not a bit narcissistic, the halo can start to crumble. In the words of the authors, “vanity on its own is a trait that is viewed quite negatively by others.” Not only are people high on vanity seen as potentially selfish and conceited, but they may also be perceived as high on narcissism and the undesirable qualities that this trait implies.

The perception that they’re vain can work against the halo effect, then, but what might help boost the favorability of an attractive person’s seeming morality? As Han and Laurent point out, sociability is part of the beautiful person stereotype, based on the perception that attractive people have good social skills. Although sociability has nothing to do with morality per se, it’s related to warmth. As a result, “sociable people are more likely to be seen as moral and less immoral.” After all, if you care about other people, you should theoretically be less likely to take advantage of them or deceive them.

Vanity, Thy Name Is Narcissist

In a series of nine experiments, the U. Illinois–Penn State research team manipulated the qualities of hypothetical individuals who were either described in vignettes or whose faces were presented to participants. Across these experiments, the authors addressed the beautiful-is-good effect by varying the appearance of the faces and the written descriptions of hypothetical individuals. By doing so, they hoped to determine whether the apparently higher vanity of the attractive person would lead participants to rate them as more immoral, suggesting the limits of the halo effect. However, counterbalancing the effect of attractiveness on perceived morality, the authors also believed that greater warmth or sociability would also be ascribed to the beautiful people.

The findings across these experiments, all of which involved online samples of adults with average ages in the mid-30s to 40s, supported the overall model in which the more attractive individuals were perceived as lower in morality due to their higher ratings of vanity. Again, as predicted, the more attractive people were perceived as more sociable, which, in turn, predicted ratings of higher morality. The beautiful-is-good effect, then, disappears when vanity enters the equation.

Now that you have an overall view of the study’s findings, it’s time to return to the question of how it is that people are so ready to jump to conclusions when judging goodness on the basis of a person's face alone. According to the authors, this logical leap occurs not only because attractive people seem to get that way by spending time on their appearance. Vanity, additionally, is part of the larger constellation of undesirable traits associated with narcissism such as duplicity and emotional coldness that cause it to be regarded as “an immoral vice.”

Consider the findings of one of the experiments in which Han and Laurent sought to discover whether people described as vain would be rated as also higher in attractiveness. The scenario from the high-vanity condition described “Nick” as a classic narcissist:

Nick is extremely vain and self-absorbed when it comes to his looks… he never leaves the house without making sure everything about him looks good… every detail must be checked and rechecked to make sure his appearance is all it can be… Nick never passes up a chance to look in a mirror.

What impression did you form of Nick? If you were like the people in the U. Illinois–Penn State study, you would imagine this narcissistic individual to be highly attractive. Also, supporting the main predictions of the study, you would rate him as less moral and more immoral. Not only are attractive people assumed to be vain, as this experiment shows, but also vain people are assumed to be attractive, completing the circle of relationships.

From Face to Personality: What’s Fair?

Being beautiful may have its many advantages, based on the Han and Laurent study, but it can lead people to draw unfortunate connections not only to personality but also to morality. Because it’s a short train ride from vanity to other undesirable features of narcissism, your conclusion that a person is attractive, vain, or both may lead equally to misconceptions about their other personal attributes. They may not have that so-called immoral vice after all.

To sum up, by giving people the chance to “earn” their personality instead of having it placed onto them due to their outward appearance, you can approach each individual you meet with a more open mind. It’s hard to discount the way someone appears. However, by looking past their superficial physical qualities and allowing their true personality to emerge over time, you can open your mind to more honest and fulfilling relationships.

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Han, D. E., & Laurent, S. M. (2022). Beautiful seems good, but perhaps not in every way: Linking attractiveness to moral evaluation through perceived vanity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi/10.1037/pspa0000317

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