Beauty and Bias
Friday, April 26th, 2013
As much as the truth hurts, I don’t think I am particularly handsome, nor do I consider myself particularly unattractive either. It’s a happy medium. Nevertheless, when you sit next to someone in class like my handsome friend Brad, you can’t help but feel a little insecure about yourself. The world just seems to favour these attractive people – whether it is job offers, achievements and success, or competing for a girl. Some of you might share my feelings; some of you may disagree. Yet a question still remains: are beautiful people lucky?
Unfortunately, this is true – at least so far as social psychology findings suggest. Studies have found that physically attractive people are often judged in a more positive light than less attractive individuals, in terms of perception of academic success, achievement-related traits and intelligence.  Moreover, it turns out they also have better job suitability ratings (irrespective of job type), higher starting salaries, higher voter ratings when running for public office, and they also receive more favourable judgements in trials. 
Unfair and preposterous, you might say; it seems that they can get away with anything. Well not exactly, as beauty can be a disadvantage, especially for attractive women, applying for ‘masculine jobs’ where physical appearance is perceived as unimportant. 
Where do all these judgements and bias come from? We often make judgement of others based on a few central characteristics.  Physical appearance is conveniently one of the first things we notice and from this limited information, we make inferences about associated attributes, such as academic-related traits and success. Such a response creates a stereotypical construct of the person, on whom we apply a set of judgements that befit the person’s prototype.  Positive characteristics prime positive inferences and vice-versa.
So how does gender play a role in our initial judgements of people? A recent randomised controlled trial study supports that gender is a key factor in our inferences about others.  People tend to favour and glorify the attractive member of the opposite sex with positive attributes, while depreciating those who are attractive but of the same sex. That is, a man would tend to judge another attractive man in a negative light, meanwhile, venerate an attractive woman.  The study postulates an evolutionary basis for this social phenomenon, driven by our instinctive desire to mate; with the suggestion that attractiveness may reflect health and reproductive capacity. By devaluing attractive same sex competitors, we might in turn strengthen our position in the game of mating. And by glorifying the attractive member of the opposite sex, we make that attractive individual even more attractive by attributing high qualities to him or her. The combination of these two processes may serve to improve our chance for the best pair bonding.
It seems that without even knowing it, I was participating in the process of the mating selection with my friend Brad. Next time you find yourself developing a negative impression of an attractive person of the same sex without good reasons, it could be your mating instinct staking its claim.
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2. Johnson, S.K., et al., Physical attractiveness biases in ratings of employment suitability: tracking down the “beauty is beastly” effect. J Soc Psychol, 2010. 150(3): p. 301-18.
3. Schneider, D.J., Implicit personality theory: a vreview. Psychol Bull, 1973. 79(5): p. 294-309.
4. Forsterling, F., S. Preikschas, and M. Agthe, Ability, luck, and looks: an evolutionary look at achievement ascriptions and the sexual attribution bias. J Pers Soc Psychol, 2007. 92(5): p. 775-88.