Are Good Looking People Dumb?

Why Do We Assume That Pleasurable Things Are Not Good For Us?

Posted Apr 26, 2011

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Betty and Veronica were smart, but not as smart as the less good-looking Midge

As a kid, one of my favorite activities was to curl up with an Archie comic. Curiously, it appeared that there was an inverse relationship between the physical attractiveness of the characters in the comic and their mental sharpness. For example, the smartest girl in the pack was Midge, who wasn't quite as hot looking as, say, Betty or Veronica. Similarly, Dilton Doiley, the sharpest knife in the Riverdale drawer, wasn't quite as physically attractive as Big Moose.

Are attractive people dumber than less attractive ones? More generally, are things-products, people, activities-that are more pleasing and enjoyable perceived to be less useful, practical or worthwhile?

The smart, but not-as-hot Midge

Rebecca Naylor and I conducted a series of studies to test people's beliefs about the relationship between the hedonic potential (that is, the enjoyability) of people, products and activities, and their functional potential (that is, their usefulness, practicality, etc.)

Which camera do you think takes better pictures?

Our results show support for, what we term, the more fun = less good intuition. In one study, we showed participants a photograph that we told them was taken by a particular camera. Then, before asking the participants to rate the photo in terms of "color resolution,", and "overall quality,", we showed them the picture of the camera that purportedly took the photo. Half the participants led to believe that a colorful, "fun-looking" camera had taken the photo, whereas the rest of the participants led to believe that a grey-colored, plain-looking camera had taken it. As you might have guessed, participants shown the latter camera rated the same photo as higher in terms of both color resolution and overall quality.

As already mentioned in another post, the fact that people's beliefs or intuitions shape their perceptions of reality is not new: we do it all the time. However, what is intriguing about this particular finding is why people believe that enjoyability is inversely related to functionality.
The "more fun = less good" intuition seems to be based on at least three different sources. The first source is religious messages. Most of the world's leading religions (including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) highlight the importance of self-abnegation for spiritual growth. Thus, these religions suggest that things that are enjoyable or pleasurable are not "good for you".

The second source is socio-cultural messages: look around, and you will see that we are surrounded by messages that suggest a negative correlation between fun-ness and goodness. For instance, advertisements for food explicitly or implicitly reinforce the idea that healthiness and tastiness don't go together. Likewise, we are often told that tasty food is unhealthy.

The final source for the intuition is, to me at least, the most intriguing: it is the messages that caregivers convey to their children.

To understand how caregivers propagate the intuition, consider what happens when a kid wants to do something that he finds enjoyable and his caregiver finds dangerous, like jumping on the couch. The caregiver is likely to say something like, "don't do that-you will fall down and hurt yourself!" Such a message emphasizes a negative correlation between what the kid finds enjoyable, and what the caregiver thinks is dangerous, thus imprinting the idea that enjoyability is inversely related to functionality. Now, consider another scenario, one in which the kid doesn't want to do something because it is boring (like homework) and the caregiver thinks is functional. The caregiver is likely to say, "only kids who do their homework will succeed in life!" Again, such a message imprints a negative correlation between enjoyability and functionality.

When the kid engages in an activity that he enjoys and the caregiver thinks is functional-like swimming-the caregiver doesn't need to intervene. Likewise, when the kid refrains from an activity that he does not enjoy and the caregiver thinks is not functional-like drinking beer-the caregiver doesn't need to intervene. These scenarios, which present an opportunity to emphasize the positive correlation between enjoyability and functionality, go unutilized.

In other words, routine interactions between caregivers and their child serve to reinforce the negative correlation between enjoyability and functionality, even though the actual, real-world, correlation between these two dimensions may be zero.

Now, all this would be of mere academic interest if the more fun = less good intuition did not hurt people. But it can-in at least two ways. First, people who subscribe to the intuition seem less happy than those who don't. It is easy to understand why: if you believe that fun things are bad for you, then you are prone to chastising yourself for partaking of fun activities (like partying). By subscribing to the intuition, you believe that every silver cloud has a dark lining.

Second, people who subscribe to the intuition, and to its cousin-the "more attractive = less intelligent" intuition, are likely to levy an attractiveness penalty on others. Naylor and I found that when a professor was described as "good looking" and "fun loving", students thought that they would learn less from him than from another professor who was described as less good looking and fun loving. Although we don't have direct evidence for it, it would seem that the attractiveness penalty is particularly pronounced for women: anecdotally at least, a lot more women feel that they are not taken as seriously as they should because they are attractive.

Before closing, I would like to comment on one other issue. As some of you may have noted, the phenomenon I have just described runs counter to the well-established halo effect findings. According to the halo effect, attractive people, when compared to their less attractive counterparts, are automatically imbued with a host of more positive traits, from greater warmth and intelligence to professionalism and sincerity. How can we reconcile the more fun = less good findings with the halo effect findings?

Although we haven't explored this issue fully yet, our preliminary findings suggest that when we meet an attractive person, both effects happen simultaneously. That is, even as we are taken in by their good looks, we simultaneously entertain the possibility that their good looks signal lack of intelligence. Which of these two effects "wins" likely depends on a variety of factors, including how the person behaves in the first few minutes of the encounter. Good-looking people who establish their credentials early on may reap the benefits of the halo effect without suffering the attractiveness penalty. On the other hand, attractive people who engage in tomfoolery or make silly remarks may be dismissed as unintelligent.

So, if you consider yourself to be above average in terms of looks (most us feel that we are), be sure that you take steps to mitigate the attractiveness penalty.

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

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