The Surprising Power of a Beautiful Face
Research finds we make incredible assumptions about people based only on looks.
Posted Dec 07, 2014
The topic of beauty and its influence on others has been debated among cultures throughout human history. Beauty has been widely regarded as a mysterious and seductive force on the psyche that reveals its power through stories of politics, marriage, power, and social status.
The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” simply means that what we consider beautiful is based on the stories we tell ourselves—a subjective experience colored by the unconscious and by the culture at large.
You’ve probably heard these stories before, of handsome men getting away with more than they should, or attractive young women getting out of speeding tickets because of their looks. Physical attractiveness does create a powerful first impression on the mind, so powerful in fact that we may go much beyond looks and simply start generating assumptions about a person's success, status, parenting, and intelligence, even if they prove not to be true.
To understand our weakness to beauty, then, we need to acknowledge the power of first impressions. First impressions linger in the mind and influence the way we see and treat others. Once an impression is rooted, it takes a lot to change our attitude about a person. If you go to a party and the host is generous and kind, you’re more likely to forgive him when he does a keg stand or spills cranberry juice on your white shirt.
This comes from our adaptive and evolutionary behavior. As David McRaney says in You Are Not So Smart:
“To speed up processing, your brain tends first to apply very simple labels to the things you encounter minute by minute. You can thank your ancestors for paying attention to these labels for millions of years, because some of the things you are most likely to encounter in life are now hardwired into your mind as being good or bad, desirable or undesirable.
"When you make decisions and kindle beliefs based on innate sensations, psychologists say you are using the affect heuristic. An affect, in psychological terms, is a feeling that needs no further analysis. It isn’t a coherent thought with words and symbols attached, but rather, a raw emotional state, a twinge or a jolt, or just a general sensation that sets a tone or a mood.”
This heuristic influences what psychologists call the halo effect. The halo effect causes one trait (e.g., beauty) to drastically color your perception of all other traits. If you think someone is beautiful, you are also likely to assume they’re smart, ambitious, interesting, etc. We’ve all made these assumptions before, for good or ill. McRaney continues:
“In the last one hundred years of research, beauty seems to be the one thing that most reliably produces the halo effect. Beauty is shorthand, a placeholder term for an invisible mental process in which you are privy only to the final output.
"Like the words delicious and disgusting, it describes a distinct variation of the affect heuristic. To see and judge a face as beautiful is to experience a tempest of brain activity informed by your culture, your experiences, and the influences of your deep evolutionary inheritance.”
Let’s take a look at some of these studies.
Why Beauty Is The Most Powerful First Impression
In 1972, psychologists Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster conducted a study to see just how beauty elicits the halo effect. The subjects, however, were told that the study was focused on first impressions. Each person received three envelopes containing three photographs that the researchers had rated on a scale of attractiveness—highly attractive, average, and not so attractive.
The subjects had to look at the photographs and then judge 27 different personality traits. They had to determine which person in the set of photos possessed traits like altruism, stability, etc. Then they had to judge whether these people were happy, along with their marital, parenting, and career status.
The results? With nothing but a picture to base their judgments, participants judged that highly attractive people possessed most of the positive traits, and possessed them more strongly, than others. They were also seen as happier and more successful, as better parents and as holding better jobs.
All of these assumptions were determined from one picture. But it makes sense, because humans are always predicting, always going beyond what’s at face value. This is like seeing someone wearing black-framed glasses and thinking they’re sophisticated, smart, or nerdy, when all they’re doing is wearing glasses. If they happen to be smart or nerdy, this impacts our memory and in turn how we begin to label others wearing similar glasses.
In another study from 1974, researchers gave essays to participants with a photo attached to it. Some received an essay with a photo of an attractive woman, others an essay with a photo of an unattractive woman. The participants were asked to rate the quality of the writing; researchers didn’t mention the photo in their questions.
The result? When people assumed the essays were written by attractive woman, they judged them as better written, more in-depth, and more creative. The catch? The essays were identical.
As McRaney concludes:
“When the scientists ran [this same] study with essays purposely written to be awful, the disparity between the ratings was magnified. As Landy and Sigall wrote, you expect better performances from attractive people, but when they fail, you are also more likely to forgive them.
"In short, as Landy and Sigall pointed out, you expect more from pretty people well before you know anything else about them, and when they fall short of your expectations, you give them more of a chance to prove themselves than you do people less symmetrical or slender or muscle-bound or bosom-heaving or whatever cultural or era-appropriate norms of attractiveness are woven into your perception.”
The halo effect isn’t limited to physical attractiveness. That 5-star-reviewed vacuum cleaner, the book with "New York Times Bestseller" stamped on the cover, or "Oprah’s Book Club"—all of these labels have profound influences on whether we give a product our own thumbs-up or thumbs-down—and whether we pull out a credit card for it or not. It’s a mental shortcut to allow us to make quick decisions instead of sitting there weighing all the different variables.
We Are Our Own Worst Critic
Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, much of our self-esteem and what we believe to be beautiful is diluted by the media. Without self-awareness, we can be pulled left and right in search of what’s beautiful and acceptable.
The ideal thin woman or a guy with a chiseled jawline with abs is ruthlessly, and inaccurately, portrayed on TV and in magazines. People are becoming more aware of the effects of Photoshop and other tools, but it proves difficult to set aside artificial standards of beauty and be more compassionate toward ourselves and others.
Dove did a wonderful campaign and study on this effect, showcasing how we’re our own worst critics, and how when others describe us, they celebrate and appreciate us, whereas we criticize and condemn.
The danger in all of this is ignorance of the halo effect, being blinded by the luster of a good hair day or a popular cultural label. To overcome it, a scientific and psychological understanding of beauty and its effects are helpful. It’s difficult to resist putting things on a pedestal, to not view items or people in a hierarchy. But with careful consideration of what we’re viewing and telling ourselves, perhaps we can achieve a level of objectivity that allows us not to be blinded by the halo above one’s head, so we may ultimately learn to appreciate beauty in all of its forms.
Paul Jun writes at MotivatedMastery.com, where he connects the dots between psychology, philosophy, and creative work. He's the author of the book Connecting the Dots: Strategies and Mediation on Self-Education.