According to a recent survey of two thousand women, a staggering 25 percent would rather win America’s Next Top Model than a Nobel Prize. Picking beauty over brains might be a bit shallow, but is it also a bad choice? In other words: is being attractive a blessing or a curse?
“Deceitful and superficial.” These two words became synonyms for David Cameron in January 2010, when the Conservatives launched their campaign posters showing an obviously airbrushed headshot of Cameron. Since the Tory leader was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain five months later, this has proven to be a storm in a teacup. Many studies focus on the relation between attractiveness and electoral success. They all seem to agree on one thing: it never hurts to be pretty. However, the effects of beauty on the share of votes are not uniform: both gender and the degree of notoriety are important factors.
Social scientists Amy King and Andrew Leigh looked into this subject. To test whether beautiful politicians are more likely to be elected, they asked a group of Australian participants to rate the physical attractiveness of 286 Australian political candidates from major political parties. The results were compared with the share of votes for these candidates in the 2004 federal election. As it turned out, the politicians of below-average beauty received 3.2 percent fewer votes, while the ones of above-average beauty received 1.2 percent more votes. This percentage was even higher for male and non-incumbent candidates.
Dumb blonde hypothesis
“Given that the media and popular culture devote more attention to feminine beauty than masculine beauty, our finding that the marginal effect of beauty is larger for male candidates than for female candidates may seem surprising,” King notes. “In our view, the most likely explanation is that female beauty carries some negative connotations, such as lower intelligence.” However, this so-called dumb blonde hypothesis (“she’s pretty, so she’s probably is stupid”) is controversial: other researchers argue that attractiveness, in both men and women, is consistently associated with positive characteristics and dispositions.
“she’s pretty, so she’s probably is stupid”
Besides gender, notoriety also affects our judgment when rating politicians. Without other sources of information about someone’s competence, we tend to base our opinion on their looks. “If voters have never heard of a candidate before they arrive at the polling place, the candidate’s beauty may provide the strongest signal of competence,” King explains. On the other hand, former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard was rated as one of the ugliest candidates, which apparently had no influence on his share of votes.
King, A., & Leigh, A. (2007). Beautiful Politicians SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.961138
Be on TV
A politician’s good looks may not only help him get more votes, but also lead to more media coverage. A recent study in which Dutch participants were asked to rate Israeli politicians, demonstrates that beauty has a positive and significant impact on television news coverage. The politicians were rated on a physical attractiveness scale from one to ten. With each point on the scale, the expected count of television appearances increased by 27 percent. Not surprisingly, politicians who appear on television more often, have a better chance of being elected.
Do we really find a politician’s looks more important than what he stands for? Well, the effect of beauty does become less significant when voters are more engaged in politics. Voters who don’t care who gets elected, and are not interested in politics, are more likely to judge the book by its cover, King concludes.
When we are looking at it from a psychological perspective, being beautiful might not always be a blessing. In case you’re looking for a job, for example. Handsome men again have nothing to worry about, but their female counterparts can experience some drawbacks of being attractive. Especially if they’re dreaming of becoming a truck driver, prison guard or mechanical engineer.
Beauty is Beastly
It’s called the ‘Beauty is Beastly effect’: attractive women being discriminated against while applying for masculine jobs. It was first mentioned in 1985, by psychologists Madeline Heilman and Melanie Stopeck. Their model states that “occupational sex bias is a result of an incongruity between one’s perceived skills and attributes, which are associated with gender, and the perceived nature of the job’s requirements.” Today, this model appears to be outdated.
we are perfectly fine with attractive women selling us cars, but do not appreciate their help in hardware stores
According to Assistant Professor of Psychology Stefanie Johnson, attractive women are deemed unfit only for those masculine professions in which physical appearance is perceived to be unimportant. The ones that don’t fall into this category, are jobs such as Marketing and Sales. So we are perfectly fine with attractive women selling us cars, but do not appreciate their help in hardware stores. “According to the so-called ‘Lack of fit’ model,” Johnson explains, “we hire people who we think ‘fit’ the requirements of the job. If these requirement are being masculine (and attractiveness is not a requirement) then attractive women (who are perceived to be more feminine) will not fit.”
Johnson SK, Podratz KE, Dipboye RL, & Gibbons E (2010). Physical attractiveness biases in ratings of employment suitability: tracking down the “beauty is beastly” effect. The Journal of social psychology, 150 (3), 301-18 PMID: 20575336
According to researchers Bradley J. Ruffle and Ze’ev Shtudiner, both affiliated with the Economics Department within different universities in Israel, beautiful women are even worse off than Johnson indicates. Their study, which was published in November 2010, suggests that attractive women are discriminated against constantly while looking for employment, no matter what job they apply for. Ruffle and Shtudiner came to this conclusion after sending out fake job applications to several companies advertising job-openings.
Adding a picture to a woman’s resume, whether pretty or plain, decreases her chances of a callback up to thirty percent
All (practically identical) resumes were sent in pairs: one including a picture of either an attractive male/female or a plain looking man/female, and one without a picture. As a result, good looking men received significantly more employer callbacks than the ones without a photo, and even twice as many as the plain-looking ones. Women, on the other hand, are wise to withhold their head shots: adding a picture to a woman’s resume, whether pretty or plain, decreases her chances of a callback up to thirty percent. And it gets worse: if the hiring company itself is in charge of hiring (instead of a employment agency for example), beautiful women’s chances lessen by 41 percent.
Beware of the Green Eyed Monster
Why are attractive women being banned from the workplace? Ruffle and Shtudiner dismiss a number of explanations. First, the ‘dumb blonde hypothesis’ doesn’t hold up, since many studies show that people consistently attribute a wide array of positive characteristics and dispositions to attractive men and women alike, most importantly, intelligence. Furthermore, the ‘job-selection hypothesis’ (“maybe unwittingly the resumes of attractive women were sent to a more competitive distribution of jobs or to employers less likely to invite candidates for an interview”) can be eliminated, because all resumes were sent in pairs. Therefore, the authors conclude, the real reason for employment discrimination against attractive women, is other women.
The real reason for employment discrimination against attractive women, is other women
Unlike men, women tend to be jealous of members of the same sex because of their physical appearance. “Females in charge of hiring at the companies themselves may well be jealous of prospective female employees who are attractive and thus may compete with them for mates, or at least the attention of male co-workers,” the authors note. Since 96 percent of the companies included in this research put a woman in charge of the screening and hiring process, this does make sense.
Luckily, there still is hope. According to Johnson, the ‘Beauty is Beastly effect’ will lose its significance in time. “All gender stereotypes seem to become less important at some point, so this one probably will too. In the future, more field research is needed to test the effect. And in addition, it would be interesting to know how women can overcome this bias.”
Tsfati, Y., Markowitz Elfassi, D., & Waismel-Manor, I. (2010). Exploring the Association between Israeli Legislators’ Physical Attractiveness and Their Television News Coverage The International Journal of Press/Politics, 15 (2), 175-192 DOI: 10.1177/1940161209361212
Ask an evolutionary biologist whether it pays to be beautiful, and he or she most certainly will answer affirmative. Why? Because evolution is all about beauty. The symmetry of a man’s face, the ratio between a woman’s hips and waist; these are all honest biological signals of reproductive fitness. It seems to makes sense too: beautiful people carry better genes, and therefore are more desirable mating partners.
Researcher Markus Jokela, affiliated with the Department of Psychology in the University of Helsinki, demonstrates that although attractiveness predicts higher reproductive success, this pattern is non-linear for females. Jokela asked a number of participants to assess the physical attractiveness of 1341 eighteen-year-olds, using yearbook photos made in 1957. Both men and women were divided into four quartiles: ‘very attractive,’ ‘attractive,’ ‘moderately attractive’ and ‘not at all attractive.’ After the rating, the results were compared with the number of children each person had had later on.
Why do very attractive women tend to have less children than their slightly less attractive counterparts?
Surprisingly, the women in the second quartile who were rated ‘attractive’ had sixteen percent more children than their less attractive counterparts. The women who were rated ‘very attractive’ however, had only six percent more children than the ones in the two least attractive quartiles. Why do very attractive women tend to have less children than their slightly less attractive counterparts?
Jokela isn’t sure about this. “There are a couple of possibilities, but these are only speculations at the moment. Very attractive women might be more picky when it comes to finding a husband. This would mean a postponement of marriage and parenthood, which might decrease the number of offspring.” Other explanations are related to the home-or-career dilemma. “Perhaps very attractive women have ‘more to lose,’ because traditionally, attractiveness is not as highly valued in motherhood than is it in other domains of life, such as work. Or maybe they have better chances of pursuing a career after parenthood, so therefore are more likely to limit their number of children. Both hypotheses should be tested. First, by assessing women’s perceptions and attitudes related to family life, and second, find out what kind of goals women pursue after they have become mothers.”
Good looks; better sperm
Women who wish to have many children are better off being pretty, but not too pretty. How about the men? According to Jokela’s findings, the main difference exists between the least attractive men versus the rest: the fourth quartile had thirteen percent less children than the ‘moderately attractive,’ ‘attractive’ and ‘very attractive’ ones. The top three quartiles did not differ from each other in the average number of children. This might have been unexpected, since another study shows that a linear relation exists between male attractiveness and the quality of semen: the better the looks; the better the sperm.
Attractive men tended to have significantly more fertile, higher quality sperm
A group of biologists took facial photos and semen samples from 66 male college students. The samples were assayed for sperm count, sperm motility and sperm morphology to generate a composite Sperm Index. After having a number of women rate their photos, the researchers discovered that the quality of semen correlates with facial attractiveness. Attractive men tended to have significantly more fertile, higher quality sperm. However, they have just as many children as the ‘moderately attractive’ ones, according to Jokela’s study.
How can we explain this? “Fertility in terms of reproductive physiology only affects a small part of the variation in the number of offspring,” Jokela explicates. “Being more fertile might affect things such as how long it takes a couple to get pregnant, but this doesn’t necessarily influence the total number of offspring. On a behavioural level, a man only needs to be moderately attractive to find a mate. So for a man’s reproductive success, this level is more important than physiology.”
Jokela, M. (2009). Physical attractiveness and reproductive success in humans: evidence from the late 20th century United States Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (5), 342-350 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.006
Being attractive pays off, at least on most occasions. If you happen to be a handsome male; never underestimate the power of beauty. Whether you’re looking to get a job, a family or some political followers: the more attractive you look, the better your chances are. If you’re a good-looking female; beware of envious co-workers. Don’t wear make-up during an interview when you’re applying to be a mine worker or prison guard. Use birth control if you’re not ready to have kids, since after all, you’re extremely fertile. And most importantly: don’t feel bad about being discriminated against every once and a while; you will still live longer, have more kids and earn more money than all those Plain Janes out there.