Is Good Also Beautiful?
Moral character affects how people see attractiveness.
Posted April 8, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Moral attitudes shape our judgments about facial attractiveness.
- Antisocial behavior affects perceived facial attractiveness of younger faces more than older faces.
- People who are sensitive to moral disgust and have empathic concern are especially influenced by the anti-social behavior of others.
Co-authored with Dexian He
A depressing but inescapable feature of beauty is that attractive people receive unearned privileges in life. They are imbued with positive personality characteristics, a bias called the “beauty-is-good stereotype” (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972). To add to the problematic nature of most people’s response to beauty, we found a complementary “anomalous-is-bad” stereotype. People with facial anomalies (e.g., scars, birthmarks, developmental abnormalities) are often regarded as less intelligent, less competent, and less trustworthy, in ways that suggest that they are being subtly dehumanized (Hartung et al., 2019; Jamrozik et al., 2019; Workman et al., 2021).
In a recently published paper, we asked the question: Do these effects of beauty on inferences of goodness go only in one direction, or do judgments of goodness also shape our impression of physical beauty?
We hypothesized that “good-is-beautiful” and “bad-is-ugly” stereotypes also exist: good people are seen as more attractive and bad people as less attractive. We also looked at whether effects of one kind of valuation (moral) on another (aesthetic) were influenced by age and sex. People rated younger and older-looking versions of the same faces along dimensions of attractiveness, confidence, and friendliness. Before making their ratings, however, each face was paired with a vignette that described the person engaged in a prosocial, antisocial, or neutral action.
What Is Good Is Beautiful and What Isn’t, Isn’t
Learning about morally relevant actions ostensibly carried out by the people whose faces raters saw affected their judgments of facial attractiveness. People thought these faces were more attractive, confident, and friendly when they were linked to prosocial actions than to neutral actions. The opposite pattern characterized faces paired with antisocial vignettes.
Evaluations of a person’s goodness bear on evaluations of physical attractiveness, which may be underpinned by a convergence of shared neural and cognitive systems within our reward and emotional systems, such as in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC; Wang et al., 2015) and amygdala (Workman et al., 2021). Both attractive facial features that signal good health and mate quality and prosocial behaviors may have adaptive value to human survival and reproduction and these values are conflated.
Age- and Sex-Related Differences
Beauty judgments of older faces were less influenced by moral transgressions than faces of younger people. People seem to be more tolerant of transgressions committed by older than younger individuals.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed that “white hair always commands reverence.” Older people are often regarded as being warmer and sometimes less competent (due to cognitive decline), a combination that might mitigate the effects of antisocial information on judgments of their attractiveness.
We did not find sex-related differences. It may be that the moral behavior of potential mates is equally important to both men and women, with both indicating that positive personality traits are an important factor in long-term mates (Little et al., 2008).
The Mediating Role of Psychological Dispositions
We also found that people who are sensitive to moral disgust and more likely to express empathic concern were especially prone to rating faces as less attractive when paired with antisocial scenarios.
In sum, aesthetic evaluations are shaped by the properties of the aesthetic objects themselves (e.g., face age), by contextual demands (e.g., moral context), and by individual differences in the psychological dispositions of evaluators (e.g., empathy). Beliefs about moral goodness and physical beauty influence each other. What is good is also beautiful and what is bad is also ugly.
Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285–290. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0033731
Hartung, F., Jamrozik, A., Rosen, M. E., Aguirre, G., Sarwer, D. B., & Chatterjee, A. (2019). Behavioural and neural responses to facial disfigurement. Scientific Reports, 9(1), 8021. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44408-8
Jamrozik, A., Oraa Ali, M., Sarwer, D. B., & Chatterjee, A. (2019). More than skin deep: Judgments of individuals with facial disfigurement. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 13(1), 117-129. https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000147
Little, A. C., Burriss, R. P., Jones, B. C., Debruine, L. M., & Caldwell, C. A. (2008). Social influence in human face preference: Men and women are influenced more for long-term than short-term attractiveness decisions. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(2), 140-146. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2007.11.007
Wang, T., Mo, L., Mo, C., Tan, L. H., Cant, J. S., Zhong, L., & Cupchik, G. (2014). Is moral beauty different from facial beauty? Evidence from an fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(6), 814–823. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsu123
Workman, C. I., Humphries, S., Hartung, F., Aguirre, G. K., Kable, J. W., & Chatterjee, A. (2021). Morality is in the eye of the beholder: The neurocognitive basis of the "anomalous-is-bad" stereotype. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1494(1), 3-17. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.14575