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The Ugly Values of Beautiful People

• September 05, 2012 • 3:18 PM

New Israeli research suggests attractive people are more likely to have conformist and self-centered values.

The beautiful are different from you and me. But not in the ways we think.

That’s the conclusion of new research from Israel, which confirms the truism that we idealize attractive people, and suggests that—at least as far as women are concerned—the pedestal we place them on is largely unearned.

“Despite the widely accepted ‘What is beautiful is good’ stereotype, our findings suggest that the beautiful strive for conformity rather than independence, and for self-promotion rather than tolerance,” writes a research team led by Lihi Segal-Caspi of the Open University of Israel.

In other words, the positive traits we attribute to good-looking people are simply a matter of stereotyping. But this study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests the unusually attractive have a distinct set of values—and they’re not, well, pretty.

The experiment featured 236 university students (mean age 29), all of whom completed detailed questionnaires designed to uncover their personality traits and deeply held values. Half the participants—118 women—were then videotaped for roughly one minute apiece as they walked around a table and read a weather forecast while looking into the camera.

The other 118 (a mixed group, 59 percent female and 41 percent male) subsequently watched the tapes. They rated each woman for attractiveness (passing judgment on her body, voice, degree of refinement and stylishness of dress), and offered their perception of her traits and values.

In line with prior research, “perceiving a target as physically attractive was associated with perceiving her as agreeable, open to experience, extroverted, conscientious and emotionally stable,” the researchers write. In contrast, on their self-assessment forms, attractive and less-attractive women did not significantly differ on these traits.

However, attractive and less-attractive women did differ on their self-reported values. “Attractiveness correlated with values that express the motivation to conform and submit to social expectations,” the researchers write, “and with values that express a focus on self-promotion rather than on concern for others.”

This is, of course, one small sample from one small country, but the results make intuitive sense. If beautiful people get doted on from a young age, they surely get the sense that society values them highly; it follows that they’d be more likely to be conformists than rebels.

Similarly, a focus on self-promotion as opposed to empathy may suggest narcissism—but isn’t being treated as special the perfect incubator for such an attitude?

On the other hand, as the researchers note, values reflect a person’s “motivational goals,” and thus could “affect women’s investment in their physical attractiveness.” If you’re self-involved by nature, you might spend more time and effort on looking good.

Given that chicken-and-egg question (one featuring chickens with particularly pretty plumage), this is an issue that demands more research, preferably conducted in a city where attractiveness is particularly prized. Any takers? We’re looking at you, UCLA.

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.

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