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Want to Boost Your Job Prospects? Try a Beauty Makeover

Beauty - and competence- are in the eye of the beholder

The "beauty premium" is a well-established social psychological phenomenon. When we see a beautiful face, we assume the person behind the face is more socially adept, confident, and successful. Employers are more likely to hire a person with an attractive face. What happens when that face is accentuated by makeup? A new study sponsored by Proctor & Gamble and conducted by Harvard Medical School researcher Nancy Etcoff suggests that wearing makeup can help promote your image as a person who is competent, likeable, attractive, and trustworthy.

Etcoff and her colleagues selected adult participants from a range of ethnic backgrounds and asked them to rate three types of women's faces: no makeup, natural makeup, and "glamorous" makeup. A professional makeup artist created the looks, applying the most mskeup to the women in the "glamorous" condition. The women ranged in age from 20 to 50. One groups of participants rated the competence, likeability, attractiveness, and trustworthiness of 100 women's faces at very short intervals (1/4 of a second). Participants in a second group were allowed to view the faces for an unlimited time. They rated the faces on these four attributes on 7-point scales. The findings showed variations in these ratings according to condition on a relatively limited range of about 3.7 to 4.2 on this scale, but the differences were statistically significant.

Participants gave their highest competence ratings to the women wearing the most makeup, whether they viewed the faces for the brief or longer periods. However, when participants were given unlimited time to view the faces, they tended to see them as less likeable, attractive, and trustworthy than when they were making snap judgments. The "natural" group scored somewhat in the middle, but the women wearing no makeup at all were given the lowest ratings on competence and likeability as well as attractiveness. The only good news for the no-makeup group was that all participants, no matter how long the viewing period, rated them as equally trustworthy as the glamorous and natural groups.

The good news from this study is that even if you're not intrinsically beautiful, you can improve the way you're perceived by your actual or potential employers by heading over to the nearest makeup counter. The bad news is that there's no real reason for appearance to matter a bit when it comes to job performance. Why should anyone give higher ratings of anything having to do with abilities by the facial features of the worker, whether adorned or unadorned by makeup? The findings of this study support not only the beauty premium, but the "plainness penalty" suffered by those who lack physical appeal.

Though the study was conducted only with female faces, we can be pretty confident that men wearing makeup wouldn't experience a similar perceived competence boost. The lesson for male job hunters would be that it's a good idea to give your hair a good combing through and your face a clean trim.

It's true that the effects in this study were statistically significant but if you look at the actual graph of the findings, the ranges were relatively limited to half a point on a 7-point scale. The media attention to this article did not draw attention to this statistical nicety, but then this is true of most media coverage of psychological studies. Research on face perception also tends to veer toward evolutionary interpretations-we perceive attractive people as potentially better mates. The authors of this study follow this line of argument as well; attributing the results to the importance of "biologically important signals."

We don't need to go down the evolutionary path to figure out why people give preferential ratings of beautiful - and in this case- highly made up women. There are plenty of social influences everywhere we look on the importance of physical beauty, especially beauty accentuated by cosmetics. Thin is in, and a glamorous face on a thin woman is even more "in." Employers don't make their judgments who they'll hire on the basis of whether their employees will propagate the species. They make their judgments on the basis of who they think will do a better job and, for better or worse, they are a product of a society that promotes the glamorous woman. They are also products of a society that pays women less than men.

Social implications aside, how can you use the results of this study to better your chances of being hired or promoted?

Whether these judgments are fairly or unfairly based, people are prone to many biases, including the beauty bias. Make it work for you by taking the following steps:

1.Job seekers: remember that appearance counts. You may not become America's Top Model, but you can do your best to look your best. Proper grooming, whether you're male or female, will give you a more polished and professional look.

2. Employers: don't confuse beauty with competence. Disengage your judgments of the beauty of the people who you are responsible for (as employer, teacher, or supervisor) from their actual abilities. There is no actual correlation between appearance and competence. However, if your employees are in a position where they need to inspire public confidence, you may want to find a fair (and tactful) way to help your people project the most desirable image.

3. Don't feel that you need to spend a fortune to improve your appearance. People wearing "natural" makeup were judged very favorably on most key indicators. Bringing out your best features doesn't require that you invest your entire paycheck in a trip to the beauty salon or makeup counter. In fact, you're better off not over-doing the makeup. The "glamorous" faces in the study didn't have excessive amounts of gloop piled on their faces.

4. Avoid the negative consequences of becoming overly preoccupied with your appearance. As I pointed out in my blog posting on narcissism, people who focus entirely on the way they look are not only a bore to others, but may have a psychological disorder. Similarly, becoming obsessed with your body image can be a warning sign of more deep-seated problems.

5. Don't rely on appearance alone. Your face only tells part of the picture about who you are and how competent you will be at your job. Make sure that you develop your inner abilities as well as your outer appearance.

In a perfect world, there would be no beauty premium. However, given today's economy and the fact that this is less than a perfect world, you might as well use it to boost your own job premium.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging and please check out my website, where you can read this week's Weekly Focus to get additional information, self-tests, and psychology-related links.

Check out my other job-related posts below:

From Online Dating to Job Interviews: Controlling your Image

Selling It: Making Interviews Work for You

Your Vocational Type: The Key to Job Fulfillment

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D.


Etcoff NL, Stock S, Haley LE, Vickery SA, House DM (2011) Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25656. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025656