What a Pretty Face Can’t Tell You

We think faces tell us a lot, especially attractive ones. But we're wrong.

Posted Nov 21, 2012

Just what, exactly, can we learn from a pretty face? 

Despite axiomatic warnings to the contrary, we know that when we meet other people we spend an awful lot of time judging their books by their covers. When we encounter someone attractive, it’s hard for us to look away. But it’s even more difficult for us to refrain from drawing bigger-picture conclusions about what type of person we think we're dealing with.

Indeed, in a recently published study, Israeli researchers set out to test two questions related to our tendency to make assumptions based on physical appearance:

  1. What are the characteristics we typically associate with attractive others?
  2. What are the characteristics actually predicted by physical attractiveness?

In their study, 118 female “targets” agreed to be filmed for 60 seconds while speaking in front of a camera. Each of these videos was subsequently shown to 1 of 118 “judges” (both male and female), who evaluated the target’s physical attractiveness, and then rated her on a variety of personality traits and personal values.

What did the judges’ responses reveal? First, that they thought they learned a fair amount about the target’s personality just based on the brief snippet of video they saw. Specifically, the more physically attractive a target was rated, the more conscientious, open to experience, and extroverted the judges believed her to be. Notably, these conclusions related to target attractiveness were no different whether from female or male judges.

Interestingly, what was related to how attractive a target appeared to be were her values. Those targets who were seen as physically attractive reported placing greater personal value on traditionalism and conformity to societal expectation—which makes some sense, since it’s certainly easier to adhere to various social norms regarding style, beauty, and the like when one is seen as good-looking.

In short, this study illustrates that while people seem to believe that attractive women possess a variety of socially desirable traits, the actual connection between appearance and personality is tenuous at best. Rather, what we can learn about others based on their attractiveness has more to do with their values and the premium they place on following societal convention.

These results are unlikely to mean an end anytime soon of our ready tendency to judge a book by its cover—or to simultaneously value, envy, and objectify physical beauty. Nonetheless, it points to a conclusion worth stating: Usually, the most accurate way to figure out what a pretty face has to tell you is to have an actual conversation with the person who’s wearing it.


Like this post? Then visit the website for Sam's book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available). You can also follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers: