Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What is beautiful is good stereotype

Like many people, you want to get ahead in life… have a successful career, be well-liked, you know, all that good stuff. So, you go to school, work hard, treat others well, and hope for the best.

Well, you’re forgetting something, and that is to look good. Why? It turns out that we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to good looking people, and these qualities have a way of becoming true.

Here’s how it works. Social psychologists have identified something called the “what is beautiful is good stereotype.” If someone is good looking—clear skin, symmetrical face, sparkly eyes or whatever else we see as beautiful or sexy or cute—we think that they are also lots of other good things. Just because they are hot, we think that they are more intelligent, sensitive, interesting, competent, and kind.

Our positive expectations for attractive people can serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we think someone is smart and has a great personality, we start to treat them differently. We expect them to live up to our expectations, and, lo and behold, they do. As such, if we think that beautiful people are better people overall, they become so.

Usually we think about stereotypes being negative, and the problems that they cause. For example, if teachers think that girls are inherently worse at math than boys, they might put less effort into teaching them, call on them less in the class, and in general have lower expectations. The result, girls end up doing worse in math because the teachers think they will.

The “what is beautiful is good” stereotype is positive, and it can be just as powerful. In a classic study, researchers had men talk with a woman via intercom for 10 minutes, and after the conversation the men were asked to rate the woman’s personality. Half the men were shown a picture of an attractive woman and told that was the woman they were talking to. The other half were shown a picture of an unattractive woman. In reality, as you probably guessed, it was the same woman talking to each of the men.

The men who thought they were talking to an attractive woman rated her as more friendly, sociable, and likeable than those talking to an “unattractive” woman. They perceived her as having a much better personality just because she was beautiful. Why? Self-fulfilling prophesy. The men talking to the “attractive” woman treated had higher expectations for her, and she lived up to them.

The effect of this stereotype varies. As might be expected, it works most strongly with first impressions. We evaluate somebody’s appearance when we first meet them, and that information becomes most important. The more we get to know them, however, the more we factor in their other characteristics as well. Also, some people put more weight on physical appearances than others, and so they would be more affected by this stereotype.

This stereotype has various social implications. We’re all aware of the remarkable amounts of time and energy that people put into their appearance. Here in the U.S. alone, women spend billions of dollars on cosmetics. This seems like frivolity, but if in fact attractive people receive preferential treatment, it might not be as misguided as it first seems.

It also suggests another source of social stratification. Sociologists are quite attuned to how race, gender, sexuality, age, and other demographic characteristics affect our social standing. Perhaps we should to incorporate other characteristics, such as attractiveness. Who knows, maybe an attractive person of minority status might have better odds in society than an unattractive person of majority status.

This stereotype also gives an idea as to why the media so often uses attractive people. Open up any magazine, and there are beautiful people selling everything from vacuum cleaners to computers to watches. We see their attractiveness, and we associate other good qualities with them, and so maybe we should listen to them about what to buy.

An instance of this stereotype is found with newscasters. In general, television news anchors tend to be attractive people. Here are pictures of two of them. Stone Phillips is a reporter and anchor for CBS news. Melissa Theuriau is a reporter on French television. Both of them are remarkably attractive people. Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve walked through the journalism department here at UConn, but I’m pretty sure that average journalism student isn’t this good looking. News organizations pick anchors, in part, on their physical attractiveness, and given all the positive attributes associated with attractiveness, this isn’t a bad idea.

The beauty stereotype raises some interesting moral questions.

One could justifiably argue that it is wrong to give extra social capital to people because of their good looks. Somehow it seems unfair, almost discriminatory, to those of us who will never earn the name “Stone”. Still, the same argument applies to intelligence, education, organizational skills, and any other factors that society rewards. Some have more, some have less. Now, don’t get me wrong. If society rewarded only beauty, I’d be in deep, deep trouble. But, if society inherently conditions its rewards, i.e., some people get them and some people don’t, how much does it matter which criteria are used? The true alternative is unconditional value, no?

Originally posted at everydaysociologyblog.com


kent said...

Wow, that is a great article.

Ruud Vermeij said...

It depends.
I think intelligence/education are capacities needed for the task of (say) engineer. The way you look is a capacity for other jobs (like movie star).
However when beauty is taken in consideration to hire an engineer, there might be something wrong. So the question is, are only required capacities taken into consideration or is there some prejudice that makes us feel that beatiful people are more intelligent?

sapience said...

This is interesting. The men have higher expectations of the woman because they are told she is beautiful (or they have lower expectations if they are not told she is).

However, if you had a nasty, mean woman, would being beautiful make others perceive her as worse than she is, the same as she is, or better than she is? If we expect certain things from beautiful women and then they don't live up to them, do we ignore it (what is beautiful must be good, despite other evidence), is it mitigated but not erased by the beauty, or do we penalize more for it than we would if the person were average looking?

Brad Wright said...

Glad you liked it, Kent.

Ruud, as I understand the literature (and it's been awhile since I read it), beauty has some effect on perceptions of intelligence, but less than on other factors, such as social competence.

Sapience, that's a good question. What do we do with people who break stereotype... do we go much further in the other direction? Hadn't thought about it.

Knumb said...

Very interesting, bro.

By the way, I'm pretty sure you wrote it just to put the pic of Melissa Thereau in there. Not because you've got the hots for her, but as a cheap ploy to spike your hitmeter when all her groupies show up.

I keeed, I keeed.

S.S.STONE said...

Great article!
The old line, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is what I like to believe in..we all see things differently ( thank God for that)..just as in art/photography, what some see as beautiful, others detest.
It's also my thought that when one is considered beautiful, life could be more difficult....perhaps they feel as though they have to prove their intelligence by working harder at it so as not to be thought of as "just another pretty face"...so it could be somewhat of a movtivator to succeed.

Brad Wright said...

John, you read me like a brother.

Sarah, I have no idea if life is more difficult for beautiful people. I'll ask my brother John!