Good looks can get you far in life, but psychologists say there are unrecognized pitfalls for the beautiful.
Can you be too beautiful? It is hardly a problem that most of us have to contemplate – as much as we might like to dream that it were the case.
Yet the blessings and curses of beauty have been a long-standing interest in psychology. Do those blessed with symmetrical features and a striking figure live in a cloud of appreciation – or does it sometimes pay to be plain?
Combing through decades of findings, social psychologists Lisa Slattery Walker and Tonya Frevert at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have reviewed all the evidence to date – and their conclusions are not what you might expect.
At the most superficial level, beauty might be thought to carry a kind of halo around it; we see that someone has one good attribute, and by association, our subconscious assumes that they have been blessed in other departments too. “It’s one of many status characteristics that we can identify very early in our interactions,” says Walker.
To psychologists, this is called the “what is beautiful is good” heuristic, but fans of the sitcom 30 Rock might recognise this as “the bubble”. Jon Hamm’s character is remarkably incompetent, yet manages to live in blissful self-delusion thanks to his good looks. As a doctor, for example, he can’t even perform the Heimlich manoeuvre, but somehow managed to drift through medical school thanks to his natural charm.
According to the available evidence, the bubble is a reality. In education, for instance, Walker and Frevert found a wealth of research showing that better looking students, at school and university, tend to be judged by teachers as being more competent and intelligent – and that was reflected in the grades they gave them.
What’s more, the bubble’s influence inflates over the years. “There’s a cumulative effect,” explains Frevert. “You become more confident and have more positive beliefs and more opportunities to demonstrate your competence.”
In the workplace, your face really can be your fortune. When everything else is considered, more attractive people tend to earn more money and climb higher on the corporate ladder than people who are considered less pleasing on the eye. One study of MBA graduates found that there was about a 10 to 15% difference in earnings between the most and least attractive people in the group – which added up to about $230,000 (£150,000) over a lifetime. “You are being conferred advantages throughout your life, from your schooldays into the workplace,” says Walker.
Even in the courts, a pleasing appearance can work its magic. Attractive defendants are likely to get more lenient sentences, or to escape conviction entirely; attractive plaintiffs, meanwhile, are more likely to win their case and get bigger financial settlements. “It’s a pervasive effect,” says Walker.
But if beauty pays in most circumstances, there are still situations where it can backfire. While attractive men may be considered better leaders, for instance, implicit sexist prejudices can work against attractive women, making them less likely to be hired for high-level jobs that require authority. (If you want Hollywood’s take on this truism, Frevert and Walker suggest that you look no further than Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde.) And as you might expect, good-looking people of both genders run into jealousy – one study found that if you are interviewed by someone of the same sex, they may be less likely to recruit you if they judge that you are more attractive than they are.
More worryingly, being beautiful or handsome could harm your medical care. We tend to link good looks to health, meaning that illnesses are often taken less seriously when they affect the good-looking. When treating people for pain, for instance, doctors tend to take less care over the more attractive people.
And the bubble of beauty can be a somewhat lonely place. One study in 1975, for instance, found that people tend to move further away from a beautiful woman on the pathway – perhaps as a mark of respect, but still making interaction more distant. “Attractiveness can convey more power over visible space – but that in turn can make others feel they can’t approach that person,” says Frevert. Interestingly, the online dating website OKCupid recently reported that people with the most flawlessly beautiful profile pictures are less likely to find dates than those with quirkier, less perfect pics – perhaps because the prospective dates are less intimidated.
So, as you might have guessed, being beautiful is not a passport to certain happiness – though it helps. Frevert and Walker are keen to emphasise that like our conceptions of beauty itself, these influences are superficial and by no means deep-rooted in our biology, as some might suggest. “We have a whole set of cultural ideals about beauty that let us say if someone is attractive – and through those same ideals, we begin to associate it with competence,” says Walker. In a sense, it’s just a cognitive shortcut for a quick appraisal. “And like many of the shortcuts we use, it’s not very reliable,” says Frevert. And it could be fairly easy to lessen the impact – if human resources departments give more information about a candidate’s achievements before an interview, for example.
Ultimately, Frevert points out that focusing too much on your appearance can itself be detrimental if it creates undue stress and anxiety – even for those already blessed with good looks. “If you are obsessing about attractiveness, it may alter your experience and interactions,” she says. It’s a cliche, but no amount of beauty can make up for a bad personality. As the writer Dorothy Parker put it so elegantly: “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”