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We think beautiful people are better at everything…but are they? You may be surprised by the answer.

Pleiades's picture

If I showed you a picture of a beautiful person what would you think about their ability to fly a plane? You may think this question is absurd, how could someone’s looks tell if they would be a good pilot or not? Well, believe it or not, odds are higher that you will think that they are a better pilot than you think an average looking person would be. In fact, you will probably assume that they are also nicer, more generous, more intelligent in general and more sensitive (the list goes on) (1). Why do we generalize like this, and are there any facts to support this seemingly incredible bias?

Every day we judge others on their appearance, and are judged in return. While this type of evaluation seems to have an effect solely on superficial every day life (such as who we choose to be around), it may extend further. The ‘halo effect’ causes others to assume that those who are more beautiful are also better in every other way as well. For some inexplicable reason, beauty becomes extrapolated as an indicator not only of personality, but talent and success as well. As you can imagine, this potentially could have an incredible effect on professionals everywhere. If you are a business professional who is thought of by most as not extraordinarily beautiful, not only are you less likely to be promoted, you will probably be making less money than your attractive counterpart. An investigation has shown that people who have been determined to be attractive make on average 5% more than people considered to be not beautiful (2).

Some attribute the halo effect to sexual attraction. Perhaps the reason beautiful people are treated so preferentially is because we all have a subliminal desire to improve our gene pool by mating with them. There is one obvious flaw with this argument. Neither the sex of the target nor the sex of the perceiver has a significant effect on people’s perception that beautiful people are intelligent and good: both men and women perceive attractive men and woman to be intelligent and otherwise good (3). Furthermore, other studies show children as young as first and second grade believe that a better-looking teacher is more intelligent than their average counterpart (4). It seems highly unlikely that the first graders want to copulate with their teacher. Thus, it is not sexual attraction that underlies the belief that attractive people are more intelligent and good.

Another theory that tries to explain the tendency to attribute positive personality traits to beautiful people is the self-fulfilling prophecy. The self-fulfilling prophecy states that if other people perceive us as something, we will start behaving in a way to confirm that belief- even if we are unaware of it in the first place (5). This means that other people’s behavior toward us affects not only the way we interact with them, but the way we perceive ourselves as well. What is false becomes true. Our own behavior is shaped through our interactions with other people. Application of the self-fulfilling prophecy was applied to beauty in the following study. 51 male subjects called "perceivers" interacted with 51 female subjects called "targets”. Before this interaction, the male perceivers had already determined which of the female targets they thought were attractive. Tape recordings of each participant's conversational behavior during the interaction were analyzed by observer judges for evidence of behavior. Results reveal that female targets that were perceived (unknown to them) by the males to be physically attractive came to behave in a friendly, likeable, and sociable manner. Female targets whose perceivers regarded them as unattractive did not come to display this friendly behavior (6). The belief of the perceiver was causing the target to act to confirm the belief (in this case that they were pretty so they must be nicer)- even though they had no knowledge of it in the first place. They changed their entire behavior in response to an unknown belief about themselves. During their interaction, the females were able to pick up on the signals put out by the males and unconsciously changed their behavior according to those signals. If what someone else thinks about us can essentially re-determine how we portray ourselves, how are we to say who we really are? This study suggests there was a preconceived notion held by the perceiver that the attractive target was smart and funny. Where did it come from? Kanazawa and Kovar have an interesting theory that may explain the cause of the self-fulfilling prophecy and the halo effect. They believe the reason people think beautiful people are smart and funny and talented is because they really are.

From four general assumptions Kanazawa and Kover give evidence supporting the idea that beautiful people are more intelligent. They claim that if females generally prefer intelligent males because they typically have higher incomes and status, and if most males prefer physically attractive females, then over time these two characteristics will tend to covary (2). People are interbreeding intelligence with good looks, causing good-looking people to actually be more intelligent as well. Good looking people are actually smarter! Elder (1969) notes that middle-class girls that have higher IQs are physically more attractive than middle class girls with lower IQs (7). No wonder we attribute intelligence to beauty, it’s true!

Through all my research on this subject, I’ve come to realize that it is really a combination of all these human behaviors combined that leads to people judging an entire person by what’s on the surface. Yes, some beautiful people are smarter than those whom aren’t considered attractive (like the middle class girls), however its also a subtle interplay of unconscious body language and personality that influences how we behave and perceive others (as seen in the Reis study). What is most important in all this is to understand that there is more going on here than people randomly attributing positive characteristics to beautiful people. There does seem to be some fact in this generalization, but this does not mean we should round up all the beautiful people and give them head positions at major companies. Even if all the beautiful people were smart, it does not mean all the smart people are beautiful. If we based the opportunities we give people by their level of attractiveness, than people like Einstein and Mother Teresa would never have had a chance to do all the amazing things they did, and we would be truly living in a world without beauty.

1) Henslin, James M (Ed). (2003). Down to earth sociology: Introductory readings (12th ed.). (pp. 313-320). New York, NY, US: Free Press. xxxi, 559 pp.
3) Kanazawa, Kover (204). Why beautiful people are more intelligent. Intelligence. 32: 227-243
4) Goebel & Cashen, 1979; Zebrowitz et al., 2002
6) Reis, Harry T (Ed); Rusbult, Caryl E (Ed). (2004). Close relationships: Key readings. (pp. 99-108). Philadelphia, PA, US: Taylor & Francis. xiii, 518 pp.
7) Elder Jr., G. H. (1969). Appearance and education in marriage mobility. American Sociological Review, 34, 519-533.


Helena's picture

Halo Effect

I disagree with this the ' Halo Effect' because beauty is very relative, what is beauty for a culture, for another culture could be is different, look myself as example, in my country it was so rare people who though I as a attractive woman, but in my former country I was a woman who people though as intelligent woman and they listened my opinion. In France and here in Canada I can say without doubt many people considered me as very attractive woman, but nobody listen me! I am not a succeed person like I was in my country which there nobody never look me as a attractive person.Beauty sometime could be a slim long leg in a culture and another culture could be a big butt; or the round face, like a full moon or the Ford agency model face that they love the sharper face, this very trick where the beauty talking about. For example, Angelina Jolie for some culture, she have a skeletal body, ( not attractive body!) How about the genius and their fabulous creations they are so far from the beauty but they are extremely intelligent!!! Summary I think I am beautiful for some people and intelligent for another. :)

WHAT THE!!'s picture

So what is beautiful to you

So what is beautiful to you ? Really be honest,most people arent when asked that question.One thing I know is that a unfriendly or nasty personality can take away from your so called beauty.