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Why Are Mean People So Good Looking?

People who are bad know how to make themselves look good.

It's no secret that when it comes to making a positive first impression, physical attractiveness helps. But it isn't just good looks that play a role — personality figures in, too. People with dark personality traits, such as narcissism and psychopathy, tend to be highly appealing to others. But why should this be — is there something special about them? A new study explores whether the magnetism of mean individuals is due to inherent or superficial qualities.

Are egoists naturally better looking than their nicer counterparts, or are they relying on strategic modifications? To be sure, some individuals engage in what's technically known as adorned attractiveness. Examples of this phenomenon include wearing stylish clothing, flattering makeup, and fashionable items that serve to enhance one's physical appearance. Conversely, unadorned attractiveness refers to “enduring” features, such as facial symmetry. Put another way, some folks are naturally attractive with minimal effort, and others clean up really well.

Nickolas Holtzman of Washington University in St. Louis and his colleagues were curious about the difference between unadorned and adorned attractiveness. As they point out, research in this area is muddled because comely individuals are grouped together without regard to how much conscious effort they put into their appearance — that is, how effectively adorned they are. And that's what these scientists wanted to unpack: What personality traits are associated with effective adornment, that is, the ability to put oneself together in an appealing way? Such an investigation would require experimentally manipulating how people present themselves, and then having them rated by impartial observers. So they devised a clever study, and did just that.

Specifically, Holtzman and his team wanted to see if people who dress to impress possess different personality tendencies than those who put in less effort. The traits in question were two well-known configurations of personality, The Dark Triad and The Big Five. The former refers to narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism (e.g., guile), while the latter encompasses extraversion (sociability and enthusiasm), agreeableness (friendliness and kindness), conscientiousness (organization and work ethic), emotional stability (calmness and tranquility), and intellect (creativity and curiosity).

The sample was comprised of 111 undergraduates, with an average age of 19.35. Women and men accounted for 64 and 36 percent of the sample, respectively. The racial breakdown was: 67% Caucasian, 23% Asian, 8% African American, and 2% from another group.

To isolate the components of attractiveness — adorned and unadorned — a full-body photograph of the test “targets” were taken under two different treatments. In the adorned condition, no adjustments were made: participants were photographed just as they were when they entered the laboratory. In the unadorned condition, however, the investigators sought to capture people in the “most neutral and yet natural state possible,” without the benefit of any beauty enhancers (such as a flattering hairstyle). Accordingly, these students received something of an anti-makeover: They changed into gray sweatpants and a gray T-shirt, stripped off makeup, and removed accessories and the like (e.g., jewelry and eyeglasses). Those with long hair tied it behind their heads, so as to eliminate the potential influence of enticing tresses; men also shaved their beards. They were then instructed to make a neutral facial expression and look straight at a camera. The resulting photographs were subsequently shown to and rated by observers who had no familiarity with the targets.

The participants were assessed for The Dark Triad and The Big Five personality traits in two ways. First, they completed self-report questionnaires. Second, they were rated by peers who knew them well. The items for The Dark Triad, for example, included: ‘‘is strategic, manipulative about people’’ (Machiavellianism) “has high vanity; is conceited’’ (narcissism), and ‘‘hurts people; appears reckless’’(psychopathy).

What did the researchers find? Mathematical correlations revealed that the three interrelated traits forming the Dark Triad were significantly associated with effective adornment. In other words, people with dark personalities knew how to look good. Perhaps of some concern is that the effect for psychopathy — often considered the ‘‘darkest’’ trait — was the most robust.

Why do callous characters present themselves so well? The authors reason that individuals with these ill-disposed tendencies may experience greater self-esteem or satisfaction from the additonal attention they receive when they dress up, encouraging them to remain stylish. It may also be that creating an attractive veneer leads to romantic liaisons, especially those of a short-term nature. Briefer mating opportunities are, according to research, especially appealing to members of The Dark Triad Club.

So if you meet someone who is effectively making the most with what he's got, take note. It doesn't necessarily mean that he gravitates to the dark side, but the results of this study suggest that you may want to beware.

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.


Holtzman, N. & Strube, M., “People with Dark Personalities Tend to Create a Physically Attractive Veneer,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

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