As we recently reported, the beauty-is-good stereotype is alive and well, perpetuated in part by the heroes and villains of Disney animated films. But politically correct parents shouldn’t discard those DVDs just yet. While the dangers of automatically equating good looks with virtue are obvious, newly published research finds a potentially positive aspect to this dynamic.
It suggests we judge good-looking people not only more favorably, but more accurately. That is, our quick-read analysis of their personalities is more likely to be in line with their own self-assessment.
“Overall, people do judge a book by its cover,” a University of British Columbia research team reports in the journal Psychological Science, “but a beautiful cover prompts a closer reading.” Attractive individuals are people we want to get to know, so we pay attention to them, and get a more accurate sense of who they are.
Psychologists Genevieve Lorenzo, Jeremy Biesanz and Lauren Human conducted an experiment with 73 undergraduates (56 female), who were separated into 10 groups of five to 11 people. The study participants met individually with every other member of their group for three minutes.
After each of these mini-meetings, they rated one another on a 21-item questionnaire designed to measure personality traits and intelligence. The study participants also reported, on a 1-to-7 scale, how attractive they found the other person.
“More attractive individuals were viewed with greater distinctive accuracy, as perceivers more accurately understood more attractive individuals’ unique characteristics,” the researchers report. This accuracy of perception “leveled off below the mean attractiveness rating,” but did not decline further for those considered unattractive.
“This suggests that physical attractiveness may enhance distinctive accuracy both because consensually attractive targets provide better information than less-attractive targets, and because perceivers pay more attention to them and are more motivated to understand them,” they write. (That “better information” presumably reflects the likelihood they have higher levels of self-esteem and feel more comfortable talking about themselves.)
The researchers concede there is a difference between seeing a person accurately and agreeing with their self-assessment. If a good-looking person thinks highly of himself, and the beauty-is-good bias leads an acquaintance to agree with that assessment, it doesn’t necessarily mean either is getting a clear picture. The next step in refining this research will be to compare those agreed-upon descriptions of the attractive person’s personality traits with the presumably more clear-eyed assessment of his or her close friends.
So, once again, highly attractive people have an advantage over the rest of us. But before considering plastic surgery, it’s worth noting another of the researchers’ conclusions: The beauty-is-good stereotype is “to some extent a product of the eye of the beholder. That is, viewing a given target as particularly attractive (controlling for the group’s perception) led a perceiver to form more positive perceptions of that target.
“Thus, even individuals who are not generally viewed as attractive can still reap the benefits of the physical attractiveness stereotype when particular perceivers find them especially attractive.”