The Beautiful People
Being attractive helps you believe in a just world . . . a little.
Posted Apr 20, 2018
There's a perception that exists involving how out of touch rich people can be, summed up well in this popular clip from the show Arrested Development: "It's one banana, Michael, how much could it cost? Ten dollars?" The idea is that those with piles of money — perhaps especially those who have been born into it — have a distorted sense for the way the world works, as there are parts of it they've never had to experience. A similar hypothesis guides the research I wanted to discuss today, which sought to examine people's beliefs in a just world. I've written about this belief-in-a-just-world hypothesis before; the reviews haven't been positive.
The present research (Westfall, Millar, & Lovitt, 2018) took the following perspectives: First, believing in a just world (roughly that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get) is a cognitive bias that some people hold on to, because it makes them feel good. Notwithstanding the fact that "feeling good" isn't a plausible function, for whatever reason, the authors don't seem to suggest that believing the world to be unfair is a cognitive bias as well, which is worth keeping in the back of your mind. Their next point is that those who believe in a just world are less likely to have experienced injustice themselves. The more personal injustice one experiences (those that affect you personally in a negative way), the more one is likely to reject their belief in a just world, because, again, rejecting that belief when faced with contradictory evidence should maintain self-esteem. Placed in a simple example, if something bad happened to you, and you believe the world is a just place, that would mean you deserved that bad thing, because you're a bad person. So, rather than think you're a bad person, you reject the idea that the world is fair. Seems that the biasing factor there would be the message of "I'm awesome and deserve good things," as that could explain both believing the world is fair if things are going well and unfair if they aren't, rather than the just-world belief being the bias. But I don't want to dwell on that point too much yet.
This is where the thrust of the paper begins to take shape: Attractive people are thought to have things easier in life, not unlike being rich. Because being physically attractive means one will be exposed to fewer personally negative injustices (hot people are more likely to find dates, be treated well in social situations, and so on), they should be more likely to believe the world is a just place. In simple terms, physical attractiveness = better life = more belief in a just world. As the authors put it:
Consistent with this reasoning, people who are societally privileged, such as wealthy, white, and men, tend to be more likely to endorse the just-world hypothesis than those considered underprivileged.
The authors also throw some line in their introduction about how physical attractiveness is "largely beyond one's personal control," and how "many long-held beliefs about relationships, such as an emphasis on personality or values, are little more than folklore" in the face of people valuing physical attractiveness. Now these don't have any relevance to their paper's theory and aren't exactly correct, but should also be kept in the back on your mind to understand the perspective they are writing from.
In any case, the authors sought to test this connection between greater attractiveness (and societal privilege) to greater belief in a just world across two studies. The first of these involved asking about 200 participants (69 male) about: (a) their belief in a just world; (b) their perceptions of how attractive they thought they were; (c) their self-esteem; (d) their financial status; and (e) their satisfaction with life. About as simple as things come, but I like simple. In this case, the correlation between how attractive the participants thought they were and their belief in a just world was rather modest (r = .23), but present. Self-esteem was a better predictor of just-world beliefs (r = .34), as was life satisfaction (r = .34). A much larger correlation understandably emerged between life satisfaction and perceptions of one's own attractiveness (r = .67). It was much the same with money: Financial status correlated better with life satisfaction (r = .33) than it did just-world beliefs (r = .17). Also worth noting is that men and women didn't differ in their just-world beliefs (Ms of 3.2 and 3.14 on the scale, respectively).
Study two did much the same as study one with basically the same sample, but it also included ratings of a participant's attractiveness supplied by others. This way, you aren't just asking people how attractive they are; you are also asking people less likely to have a vested interest in the answer to the question (for those curious, ratings of self-attractiveness only correlated with other ratings at r = .21). Now, participants' self-perception of their physical attractiveness correlated with their belief in a just world (r = .17) less well than independent ratings of attractiveness did (r = .28). Somewhat strangely, being rated as prettier by others wasn't correlated with self-esteem (r = .07) or life satisfaction (r = .08) — which you might expect it would be, if being attractive leads others to treat you better — though self-ratings of attractiveness were correlated with these things (rs = .27 and .53, respectively). As before, men and women also failed to differ with respect to their just-world beliefs.
From these findings, the authors conclude that being attractive and rich makes one more likely to believe in a just world under the premise that one experiences less injustice. But what about that result where men and women don't differ with respect to their belief in a just world? Doesn't that similarly suggest that men and women don't face different amounts of injustice? While this is one of the last notes the authors make in their paper, they do seem to conclude that — at least around college age — men might not be particularly privileged over women. A rather unusual passage to find, admittedly, but a welcome one. Guess arguments about discrimination and privilege apply less to college-aged men and women, at least.
While reading this paper, I couldn't shake the sense that the authors have a rather particular perspective about the nature of fairness and the fairness of the world. Their passages about how belief in a just world is a bias not containing any comparable comments about how thinking the world is unjust is also a bias, coupled with comments about how attractiveness is largely outside of one own's control, and this...
Finally, the modest yet statistically significant relationship between current financial status and just-world beliefs strengthens the case that these beliefs are largely based on viewing the world from a position of privilege.
...in the face of correlations ranging from about .2 to .3 does likely say something about the biases of the authors. Explaining about 10 percent or less of the variance in belief in a just world from ratings of attractiveness or financial status does not scream that "these beliefs are largely based" on such things to me. In fact, it seems to suggest that our beliefs in a just world are largely based on other things.
While there is an interesting debate to have over the concept of fairness in this article, I actually wanted to use this research to discuss a different point about stereotypes. As I have written before, people's beliefs about the world should tend towards accuracy. That is not to say they will always be accurate, mind you, but rather that we shouldn't expect there to be specific biases built into the system in many cases. People might be wrong about the world to various degrees, but not because the cognitive system generating those perceptions evolved to be wrong (that is, individuals don't take accurate information about the world and distort it); they should just be wrong because of imperfect information or environmental noise. The reason for this is that there are costs to being wrong and acting on imperfect information. If I believe there is a monster that lives under my bed, I'm going to behave differently than the person who doesn't believe in such things. If I'm acting under an incorrect belief, my odds of doing something adaptive go down, all else being equal.
That said, there are some cases where we might expect some bias in beliefs: the context of persuasion. If I can convince you to hold an incorrect belief, the costs to me can be substantially reduced or outweighed entirely by the benefits. For instance, if I convince you that my company is doing very well and only going to be doing better in the future, I might attract your investment, regardless of whether that belief you have in me is true. Or, if I had authored the current paper, I might be trying to convince you that attractive/privileged people in the world are biased, while the less privileged are grounded realists.
The question arises, then, as to what the current results represent: Are beautiful people more likely to perceive the world as fair, and ugly ones more likely to perceive it as unjust, because of random mistakes, persuasion, or something else? Taking persuasion first, if those who aren't doing as well in life as they might hope because of their looks (or behavior or something else) are able to convince others they have been treated unjustly and are actually valuable social assets worthy of assistance, they might be able to receive more support than if they are convinced their lot in life has been deserved. Similarly, the attractive folk might see the world as more fair to justify their current status to others and avoid having it threatened by those who might seek to take those benefits for their own. This represents a case of bias: presenting a case to others that serves your own interest, irrespective of the truth.
While that's an interesting idea — and I think there could be an element of it in these results — there's another option I wanted to explore as well: It is possible that neither side is actually biased. They might both be acting off information that is accurate as far as they know, but may simply be working under different sets of facts.
This is where we return to stereotypes. If person A has had consistently negative interactions with people from group X over their life, I suspect person A would have some negative stereotypes about group X. If person B has had consistently positive interactions with people from the same group X over their life, I further suspect person B would have some positive stereotypes about group X. While those beliefs shape each person's expectations of the behavior of unknown members of group X, and those beliefs/expectations contrast with each other, both are accurate as far as each person is concerned. Person A and B are both simply using the best information they have, and their cognitive systems are injecting no bias — no manipulation of this information — when attempting to develop as accurate a picture of the world as possible.
Placed into the context of this particular finding, you might expect that unattractive people are treated differently than attractive ones, the latter offering higher value in the mating market at a minimum (along with other benefits that come with greater developmental stability). Because of this, we might have a naturally occurring context where people are exposed to two different versions of the same world — both develop different beliefs about it, but neither necessarily does so because they have any bias. The world doesn't feel unfair to the attractive person, so they don't perceive it as such. Similarly, the world doesn't feel fair to the unattractive person, who feels passed over because of their looks. When you ask these people about how fair the world is, you will likely receive contradictory reports that are both accurate, as far as the person doing the reporting is aware. They're not biased; they just receive systematically different sets of information.
Imagine taking that same idea and studying stereotypes on a more local level. From what I've read, when it comes to stereotype accuracy, research has largely been looking at how people's beliefs about a group compare to that group more broadly; along the lines of asking people, "How violent are men, relative to women?" and then comparing those responses to data collected from all men and women to see how well they match up. While such responses largely tend towards accuracy, I wonder if the degree of accuracy could be improved appreciably by considering what responses any given participant should provide, given the information they have access to. If someone grew up in an area where men are particularly violent, relative to the wider society, we should expect that they have different stereotypes about male violence, as those perceptions are accurate as far as they know. Though such research is more tedious and less feasible than using broader measures, I can't help but wonder what results it might yield.
Westfall, R., Millar, M., & Lovitt A. (2018). The influence of physical attractiveness on belief in a just world. Psychological Reports, 0, 1-14.