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Qualified, But Just Too Handsome

New research finds that attractive people in the business world or academia may be at a disadvantage when they’re evaluated by a member of the same sex.
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Good-looking people have it easier than the rest of us. Considerable research has come to that conclusion, including a 2009 study that found that personal attractiveness enhances one’s income prospects.

But a newly published paper points out an exception to that rule. An attractive person appears to be at a disadvantage in certain academic or workplace situations: specifically, if he or she is being evaluated by a member of the same sex.

“Although physical attractiveness should have little to do with the way people evaluate scholarship applicants and job candidates, we found that both were affected by their level of physical attractiveness,” writes psychologist Maria Agthe of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, she contends this bias is “rooted partly in the social threats and opportunities afforded by attractive people."

In other words, while our conscious minds are considering an applicant's skills and background, our unconscious minds are sizing him or her up as a romantic competitor. (It's never too early to contemplate the next company party.)

In a paper titled "Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful," Agthe and her co-authors, Matthias Spörrle (Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich) and Jon K. Maner (Florida State University), describe two experiments. In the first, 2,639 students were asked to imagine serving on a scholarship selection committee. They were asked to choose among a group of finalists, using detailed information on their grades and extracurricular activities, as well as a photo.

The images were “extensively pre-tested by an independent sample of 40 students" to determine attractiveness. Participants were asked to rank the three finalists in the order in which they would award the scholarship.

"When men judged women, the most attractive target received the first rank in 49.9 percent of the cases," Agthe reported. "The least attractive person was chosen only 16.5 percent of the time. A similar pattern was found for female participants: The most attractive man was ranked first 42.5 percent of the time. This pro-attractiveness bias was not found for same-sex selections."

In the second experiment, 622 students imagined themselves as recruiters and evaluated potential job candidates. The résumés again accompanied by a photo, which showed either a highly attractive or a moderately attractive person. For this test, the participants' attractiveness was also rated (by an independent panel).

The results: "Women provided more negative attributions for highly attractive female job candidates," the study reports. "In contrast, those women provided marginally more positive attributions for highly attractive male candidates. Similarly, moderately attractive male participants provided more negative attributions for highly attractive male job candidates.“

However, this bias was not found for those participants who were themselves highly attractive. "The bias held only for average-looking participants, those for whom highly attractive same-sex competitors present a particularly pernicious social challenge," the study concludes.

Agthe suggests several ways to get around such bias, including consulting opposite-sex colleagues when evaluations are taking place. Indeed, the research suggests evaluations for hiring or promotion should arguably be left to committees featuring both men and women. Attractiveness bias may never be completely eradicated, but perhaps it can at least be evened out.