I remember one year, when I was still in graduate school, a particularly beautiful young woman applied to our program. She was extremely well-qualified, and had a strong background in neuroscience from a top university, but she looked like she had just stepped out of an issue of Marie Claire. Frankly, she was the kind of girl I was loathe to stand next to, for fear of not faring well by comparison. I'll admit that I wasn't totally thrilled at the prospect of having her around, competing for the attention of the few male graduate students who actually remembered to bathe, shave, and wash their clothes regularly.
But pretty or not, she was a top candidate, and I was certain she'd be accepted to the program. So I was stunned when a senior professor in our department told me, quite causally in the hallway, that she had decided not to offer this young woman a position. "I don't think we want her here, do you? I think she'd make the rest of us feel like we aren't pretty enough."
Her statement, coming from a respected and well-known psychologist nearly twice my age, seemed to me so ludicrous and appalling that I waited for her to start laughing or winking, but she never did. And the pretty girl never did get the offer. I doubt very much that when she later tried to figure out what went wrong, she ever considered the possibility that her good looks had been held against her.
Most of us assume that the beautiful people have it made - that being attractive gives you advantages across the board. Much of the time, we are right. Decades of psychological research has shown that when someone is attractive, we often unconsciously assume that they have lots of other good qualities too. We perceive them to be warmer, kinder, smarter, funnier, and more honest, simply because they are easier on the eyes.
But recent research has shown how the advantages of being beautiful don't always translate into greater successes. In fact, being good-looking can cost you opportunities - jobs, scholarships, promotions - depending on the gender and attractiveness of your evaluator.
Psychologist Maria Agthe found that attractive applicants for a graduate scholarship received more favorable ratings from opposite-sex raters, but not from same-sex raters. Men were unimpressed by a male applicant's handsomeness, and women actually penalized female applicants for beauty.
In a second study, Agthe found that the effect of an applicant's attractiveness on their ratings also depended on the beauty of the beholder. Good-looking raters didn't seem to care one way or the other how handsome or beautiful an applicant was, but average-looking raters did - they penalized better-looking same-sex applicants.
In the end, we tend to think about the attractiveness of the person we are evaluating in terms of opportunities and threats. Attractive members of the opposite sex (obviously, assuming you are heterosexual) are generally good to have around. Their presence is an opportunity - if not for an actual relationship, then at least for some innocent flirting and wishful thinking. Attractive members of our own sex, on the other hand, are The Competition. Their presence is a threat - they "make the rest of us feel like we aren't pretty enough." So, given the choice between a candidate with average looks, and one who is gorgeous, why choose the latter and end up feeling inadequate? Ugly Betty wins every time.
We'd all like to think that decisions like these are objective and that the best man or woman wins, but bias is real and everywhere, and there's no use pretending otherwise. So, what to do?
First, just to be practical, you might want think carefully about your appearance when you interview for a position, depending on who is doing the interviewing. When your potential boss is a member of your own sex, consider a more conservative, professional look. You want your interviewer focused on your credentials, not your good looks.
More importantly, I think each of us needs to try to be aware of our own biases when we are in the position to hire, promote, or bestow an award on someone. Research suggests that probing your thoughts for potential bias can remove its influence. Stop and ask yourself - is my decision being influenced by the candidate's looks? Am I being fair? Would I want to be judged this way?
You can make better, bias-free decisions if you take the time to examine and question your reasoning. If the best-looking same-sex candidate is truly the best-qualified and most deserving, hire them. You can always avoid standing next to them at the office Christmas party.