Attractiveness Bias: Why Attractive People Get Preferential Treatment

Imagine you have to hire a secretary. Both the candidates have identical qualifications and experience, but you find one a bit more attractive than the other. Who would you hire?

Think of a real life situation in the past where you might have had to make a similar choice. Who did you pick?

Or, take a different example. Imagine you’ve just witnessed a traffic accident. There are two victims —one you find attractive, the other less so. Which of the two victims would you help first?

You’ve most likely already made a choice. Read on to understand why have you made it.

During the first presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, Nixon was running a fever, and looked very pale. He wore light colours and no makeup. Kennedy in turn wore dark colours, makeup, and unlike Nixon, rehearsed his delivery in a studio prior to the debate.

Nixon was compelling. People who listened to the debate by radio believed Nixon to be the clear winner. However, people who watched the debate on TV came to a very different conclusion.

The difference, as you might have guessed, is because of the differences in their appearances. Kennedy is said to have looked younger, stronger, healthier, far more attractive and steadier than Nixon.

It’s a classic demonstration of the Attractiveness Bias.

Despite the old adage, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ facial cues of others often guide your first impressions. These first impressions guide your decisions. There are valid facial cues that assist you in assessing someone’s health or intelligence, but such cues are overshadowed by an ‘attractiveness halo’.

You may find it ethically repulsive to agree, but it’s true that attractive people are generally perceived more positively than unattractive people, irrespective of what they actually are.

They generally receive more attention from the opposite sex, even they are imbeciles. The slightly more attractive child receives extra affection and attention from the mother and other relatives. Attractive people are likely to receive more leniency in court, and are very likely to receive more votes as well.

Consider this classic study from the 1970s:

“Four hundred and forty-two males and 162 female white adult callers in public phone booths in a large metropolitan airport found a completed graduate school application form, a photograph of the applicant, and an addressed, stamped envelope. The picture was used to convey information as to the physical attractiveness (attractive vs. unattractive), race (black vs. white), and sex of the applicant. As predicted, delivery of the application was facilitated more for attractive than unattractive persons.”

— Peter L. Benson et al, Pretty pleases: The Effects of Physical Attractiveness, Race, and Sex on Receiving Help

Even in professional life, attractive people have the upper hand. Studies have consistently shown that attractive people get favourable treatment even before they’ve landed the job: attractive individuals are more likely to be recommended for a job, considered more qualified for a job, considered more likely to succeed at a job, and are more likely to be hired for a job, all other variables being equal.

Attractive people are also more likely to be paid more for a job, are more likely to be promoted, and less likely to be fired.

It doesn’t stop there. Appearance matters in everyday life as well. For example, attractive people are more likely to be befriended on social networking sites, and are also far more likely to be asked out on dates.

The attractiveness bias isn’t conscious, and you can’t be blamed for being superficial. This is largely a result of the phenomenon known as the “beautiful is good” stereotype, which suggests that attractive individuals are perceived to be more sociable, friendly, warm, and competent than less attractive individuals. There is even some evidence that attractive individuals are perceived to be more intelligent and mentally adjusted than less attractive individuals.

It is a function of both biological and sociological factors.

Biologically speaking, you are attractive when you exude health and fertility. Humans have inherited this trait from our ancestors. These biological factors of attraction are innate and true across cultures.

In studies presenting images of attractive and unattractive people to toddlers, they looked longer at the attractive people regardless of their gender, age, or race.

Truth be told, you can’t do much to change people’s perception from a biological point of view. However maintaining good physique and hygiene definitely helps you improve your odds by some extent.

Sociologically speaking, men are attracted to women when they exaggerate socially acknowledged features of sexuality (e.g. red lipstick to exaggerate lips); and women are attracted to men when they appear to possess wealth and power (e.g., expensive clothes and automobiles).

In studies presenting images of attractive and unattractive people to men and women, along with descriptions of their occupations and statuses, women preferred less attractive men with high social stature or high-paying occupations equally to attractive men with medium-paying occupations and medium social stature.

Similarly, men preferred less attractive women with good financial and social status more or less equally to attractive women with not so good financial and social status.

It’s important to note that environmental factors of attraction, unlike the biological ones, vary considerably across cultures. Also, in the above experiments the men and women involved just looked at pictures and heard narrations about the subjects social and financial status. They didn’t really know the subject in real life. Things are very different during in-person interactions.

Bottom line is this:

If you haven’t got a face, you are at a disadvantage. Accept it. But you can build your physique, wealth and social status to stand a fighting chance in getting preferential treatment.

Advertisements usually exploit your attractiveness bias. When the presentation of attractive women is a key element of the story of an ad, usage of renderings or images of women with waist-to-hip ratios of approximately 0.70 (basically all models), accented by culturally appropriate augmentations of sexual features is seen. Usually complimented by skimpy clothing as seen above.

When the presentation of attractive men is a key element of a design, images of men with waist-to-hip ratios of approximately 0.90, and visible indicators of wealth or status is usually seen.

One other factor that determines a person’s subjective evaluation of attractiveness is the extent to which the person’s appearance is in compliance with their perceived gender.

Males are typically perceived as more attractive when they have more stereotypically “masculine” characteristics (e.g., a broad jaw, pronounced brow ridge, and a wide nose and chin), and females are perceived to be more attractive when they possess more stereotypically “feminine” characteristics (e.g., a thick mouth and upper lip, smaller lower faces, and prominent cheekbones).

When a job candidate’s perceived masculine or feminine characteristics are not in line with the perceived masculine or feminine nature of the job, Gender Bias results. This explains why male and female candidates receive lower ratings when being considered for an opposite-sex position.

Statistically, women have low presence in STEM jobs, and men are rarely seen in secretary and HR positions. Men’s physical attractiveness proves advantageous for most types of jobs except stereotypically feminine positions. Similarly, women’s attractiveness increases their likelihood of being selected for stereotypically feminine jobs.

Gender bias is a subset of attractiveness bias. This bias however works against you sometimes, especially if you are attractive.

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