Your workplace probably differs from the social scene of a typical high school in significant ways, and most would agree that’s a good thing. But a recent study reveals that when it comes to how attractive and unattractive people are treated, your office and your high school aren’t so far removed.
The study, conducted by researchers from Notre Dame and Michigan State University, had a simple aim: to find out if less attractive people are treated poorly in the workplace more often than physically attractive people, despite personality traits. The researchers surveyed 114 workers at a health care facility about how frequently co-workers treated them cruelly—defined as saying hurtful things, acting rudely and making fun of them (behaviors collectively referred to as “counterproductive work behavior”). The researchers also took digital photos of those they surveyed and asked a different group of people, who didn’t know the first group, to judge their attractiveness.
The results suggest that physical attractiveness plays at least as big a role in how someone is treated at work as personality. Even if someone is gregarious and open to new ideas (two of the studied personality measures), he or she is more likely to be treated cruelly if physically unattractive.
"We find that unattractive individuals are more likely the subject of rude, uncivil and even cruel treatment by their coworkers. And, not only do we, as a society, perceive attractive and unattractive coworkers differently, we act on those perceptions in ways that are hurtful,” said study co-author Timothy Judge, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.
This isn’t the first study to link physical attractiveness or lack thereof to bullying behavior, but it is the first to show the cruel dynamic at play between coworkers while taking into account personality factors – and the results aren't a win for professional courtesy.
"Given that physical attractiveness is not a bona-fide occupational qualification for most jobs, our new findings are problematic for society," Judge says. "Worse, research reliably shows that we're more influenced by attractiveness than we are willing to admit."
In fact, research shows that we are even apt to more frequently trust attractive people and judge them as less likely to harm us than unattractive people – and that’s just a fraction of well-studied biases triggered by looking at a pretty face.
These biases, like so many of our tragic mental hiccups, appear to be socially enacted offshoots of neural wiring. Research shows that our brains have adapted complex systems for evaluating facial attractiveness, and it makes sense that our thinking and behavior would follow suit. Of course this doesn't in any way vindicate cruel behavior, but does suggest that we’re up against more than we think when it comes to treating people equally, physical attractiveness be damned.
How might we get there? "Awareness is surely one important step," Judge says. "If we recognize our biases and are more open and honest about their pervasiveness, we'll be in much better shape to combat the influence."
The study was published in the journal Human Performance.