Across Cultures, People Associate ‘Attractive’ Faces With More Intelligence, Trustworthiness: Study
It’s called the “what is beautiful is good” principle — the idea that attractive people must also be better human beings. Of course, this isn’t inherently true of the world, but it describes a dominant perception
Published last week in Current Psychology, the study encompassed 11 world regions to find that across all of them, “male and female faces rated as more attractive were [also] rated as more confident, emotionally stable, intelligent, responsible, sociable, and trustworthy.” The “attractiveness halo effect,” the researchers found, applied in more regions than previously thought.
The “halo effect” is a nearly 100 year-old concept, which posits that people tend to rate others they find physically attractive as having positive qualities — like intelligence, confidence, empathy — too. This inevitably leads to attractive people amassing greater success — whether in terms of professional growth, education, or even prison sentences.
In the present study, 11,000 participants were recruited to rate 120 photos using 13 adjectives, all of which describe a social quality (such as confidence, intelligence, weirdness, and so on.) Across regions, participants rated the attractive faces as having more positive social qualities, and the ones they rated to be unattractive, having more negative ones — this is the “beauty goggles’ effect, where attractiveness clouded judgments leading to a heightened perception of positive personality traits,” according to Carlota Batres, a psychology professor from the Franklin and Marshall College, and co-author of the study.
These findings have disquieting implications — they show how culturally constructed beauty norms can cause people to have an unfair positive bias toward “beautiful” people. We used to think, for instance, that facial attractiveness signaled physically healthy people with good immune systems. Research has debunked this perception — and yet, the halo effect continues.
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But the “halo effect” also signals larger cultural blindspots when it comes to perceptions of beauty. There are even troubling eugenicist roots to the idea that beautiful people are inherently better people. Consider the fact that Nazi ideology proscribed Aryan features — blue eyes and blond hair — as defining characteristics of a superior race of human beings by way of intellect, disposition, and quality. The eugenics movement that picked up steam across Western societies linked physical attractiveness with a person’s inherent worth, and posited that only these individuals be encouraged to procreate.
Who and what we find physically attractive isn’t just a dark historical legacy; it continues to be marred with prejudice. “‘Pretty’ is most often synonymous with being thin, white, able-bodied, and cis, and the closer you are to those ideals, the more often you will be labeled pretty — and benefit from that prettiness,” wrote Janet Mock in Allure. One example (of several) of how pretty people benefit from it is being scored higher in examinations. Recent research has also pointed out how our beauty norms are constantly in flux, but they’re dictated by the media we consume. And with the media being rooted in bias, norms around beauty continue to reproduce systemic hierarchies that define what beauty is for us.
There’s a reason why the beauty industry is as much of a behemoth as it is: it relies upon a relatively homogenous conception of attractiveness and uses the halo effect back at us. Think of fairness cream advertisements, for instance, that used to attribute fairer skin with higher success in job interviews or romantic encounters.
But beauty, attraction, and desire are all heavily constructed norms. To take it for granted that attractiveness is a natural rather than social fact, then, is to keep pretty privilege not only intact, but also entrench it further. In fact, it becomes one of the axes through which the historically privileged maintain their dominion in social hierarchies. The idea of “physical attraction,” then, is one that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as its prejudices quickly become obvious. Who is considered attractive within this paradigm is thus political: as writer Christina Dhanraj puts it in the context of caste and desirability, “… is it possible to feel desire when you haven’t already worked towards wanting to desire that person? Haven’t been conditioned into wanting to desire that person, socialized into desiring that person?”