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Beauty Goggles: The Attractiveness Halo Effect Across Cultures

How attractiveness influences our perception of others.

Key points

  • In the halo effect, people tend to attribute socially desirable personality traits to physically attractive individuals.
  • New research examined cross-cultural differences in the “attractiveness halo effect” in 11 world regions.
  • More attractive faces were rated as more confident, emotionally stable, intelligent, responsible, sociable, and trustworthy.

Research has demonstrated that we are able to make judgments of people after only 100 milliseconds of exposure to their faces. With such minimal information, we are able to effortlessly and intuitively rate faces on a wide array of traits, such as attractiveness. Being able to quickly perceive attractiveness may be adaptive since there is some evidence that it signals health and immunocompetence.

The Halo Effect

Attractiveness has been said to have a positive “halo effect,” in which people tend to attribute socially desirable personality traits to physically attractive individuals. Indeed, several studies have documented this effect.

João Rabelo/ Pexels
Source: João Rabelo/ Pexels

Most of this research, however, has been conducted using Western samples. Some studies have found cross-cultural agreement in judgments between Western and non-Western samples, but other studies have found cross-cultural variation. Therefore, a new scientific article published today (on which I am a co-author) aimed to extend the cross-cultural work on this topic and examine the “attractiveness halo effect” in 11 world regions.

Cross-Cultural Examination

More than 11,000 participants from across 45 countries were recruited by a large cross-cultural collaborative network of researchers (including myself) called the Psychological Science Accelerator. Participants were randomly assigned to rate one of 13 adjectives (i.e., attractiveness, aggression, caringness, confidence, dominance, emotional stability, intelligence, meanness, responsibility, sociability, trustworthiness, unhappiness, weirdness). They rated the photos of 60 men and 60 women of different ethnicities.

We found that attractiveness correlated positively with all of the socially desirable personality traits and negatively with all of the socially undesirable personality traits. More specifically, across all 11 world regions, male and female faces rated as more attractive were rated as more confident, emotionally stable, intelligent, responsible, sociable, and trustworthy.

In other words, people tended to attribute socially desirable personality traits to individuals high in physical attractiveness. Therefore, there was what I am calling a “beauty goggles” effect, where attractiveness clouded judgments leading to a heightened perception of positive personality traits.

These findings can have real-world effects. For instance, in jury studies, it has been found that mock jurors are less likely to find physically attractive defendants guilty when compared to physically unattractive defendants. If convicted, mock jurors, as well as real jurors, recommended less severe sentences for more attractive defendants. These effects could in part be explained by the findings presented here that more attractive faces are judged as more responsible and trustworthy.

In conclusion, these new results provide strong evidence that the “attractiveness halo effect” can be found cross-culturally. The study was published today in the scientific journal Current Psychology.

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