Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Beauty Leads to a Closer Look

• November 10, 2010 • 1:30 PM

New research finds physically attractive people are viewed both more positively and more accurately.

As we recently reported, the beauty-is-good stereotype is alive and well, perpetuated in part by the heroes and villains of Disney animated films. But politically correct parents shouldn’t discard those DVDs just yet. While the dangers of automatically equating good looks with virtue are obvious, newly published research finds a potentially positive aspect to this dynamic.

It suggests we judge good-looking people not only more favorably, but more accurately. That is, our quick-read analysis of their personalities is more likely to be in line with their own self-assessment.

“Overall, people do judge a book by its cover,” a University of British Columbia research team reports in the journal Psychological Science, “but a beautiful cover prompts a closer reading.” Attractive individuals are people we want to get to know, so we pay attention to them, and get a more accurate sense of who they are.

Psychologists Genevieve Lorenzo, Jeremy Biesanz and Lauren Human conducted an experiment with 73 undergraduates (56 female), who were separated into 10 groups of five to 11 people. The study participants met individually with every other member of their group for three minutes.

After each of these mini-meetings, they rated one another on a 21-item questionnaire designed to measure personality traits and intelligence. The study participants also reported, on a 1-to-7 scale, how attractive they found the other person.

“More attractive individuals were viewed with greater distinctive accuracy, as perceivers more accurately understood more attractive individuals’ unique characteristics,” the researchers report. This accuracy of perception “leveled off below the mean attractiveness rating,” but did not decline further for those considered unattractive.

“This suggests that physical attractiveness may enhance distinctive accuracy both because consensually attractive targets provide better information than less-attractive targets, and because perceivers pay more attention to them and are more motivated to understand them,” they write. (That “better information” presumably reflects the likelihood they have higher levels of self-esteem and feel more comfortable talking about themselves.)

The researchers concede there is a difference between seeing a person accurately and agreeing with their self-assessment. If a good-looking person thinks highly of himself, and the beauty-is-good bias leads an acquaintance to agree with that assessment, it doesn’t necessarily mean either is getting a clear picture. The next step in refining this research will be to compare those agreed-upon descriptions of the attractive person’s personality traits with the presumably more clear-eyed assessment of his or her close friends.

So, once again, highly attractive people have an advantage over the rest of us. But before considering plastic surgery, it’s worth noting another of the researchers’ conclusions: The beauty-is-good stereotype is “to some extent a product of the eye of the beholder. That is, viewing a given target as particularly attractive (controlling for the group’s perception) led a perceiver to form more positive perceptions of that target.

“Thus, even individuals who are not generally viewed as attractive can still reap the benefits of the physical attractiveness stereotype when particular perceivers find them especially attractive.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.