Galaxy 4

What difference does it make what your form is?

The moral of many stories is that we shouldn’t judge by appearances. Beauty is only skin deep. Don’t judge a book by its cover. All that sort of thing.

But is it true?

Over the past few decades, there’s been a lot of research into beauty – how we judge it, what effects it has on the lives of those who have it, or who seriously lack it.

The main discovery is that, in a wide variety of ways, life is better if you are beautiful. Investigating exactly why this is the case leads to some interesting and tricky questions.

If we’re going to talk about beauty, the most fundamental question is whether there is really some more or less objective thing called beauty that we can meaningfully talk about. If it’s all just down to random subjective whims, then whether one person or another is called beautiful becomes simply arbitrary, and any idea of studying beauty scientifically falls apart.

The good news – or bad news, depending on your point of view – is that assessments of beauty are remarkably consistent both within and between cultures. When groups of people are given photographs of faces and asked to rate them according to attractiveness, there is a high level of agreement. This has been found in multiple studies, and it applies however experimenters vary the gender, race or culture of the people doing the rating or the people in the photographs. White American undergraduate students judge beauty in the same way as Tsimane people of the Bolivian rain forest who have had virtually no contact with Western culture.

What’s particularly striking about beauty, though, is what is called the halo effect. We tend to ascribe good properties to beautiful people, even when these properties have nothing to do with physical appearance. Beautiful people are perceived to be happier and more socially desirable, better spouses and better parents. They are considered to be more trustworthy, more intelligent, and better at their jobs.

These effects are not confined to the laboratory. Beautiful people have higher salaries and higher status jobs, are more likely to be married, do better in exams at school and university, and if they stand for office are more likely to be elected.

On the face of it, this seems unjust. Why should a pretty face get you a better job?
Lets establish a few key points. First, there are actually two effects going on here – the “beauty premium” and the “ugliness penalty”. Both of these matter – on every measure where people who are notably good-looking do better, people who are notably plain or unattractive do worse. It is the combination of these two effects that drives inequalities related to physical appearance, and generally speaking the ugliness penalty usually turns out to be larger than the beauty premium. Being pretty is certainly an advantage – but if you’re a munter you’re screwed.

Next, this turns out not to be a gendered issue. For the most part, the beauty premium and the ugliness penalty affect men as well as women, and often they are both somewhat more important for men. This is certainly surprising, given that the beauty of women is so much more emphasised than the beauty of men, not just in Western culture, but across the world. There are a few instances in which there are consequences of beauty that only seem to apply to women, but these are very much the exception.

But what if there’s something going on here besides mere prejudice? What if beautiful people really are better?

It’s easy to see how beauty could be a genuinely relevant advantage in some jobs, like modelling or acting, and it’s hardly surprising that good-looking people in these professions can command higher fees, all else being equal. Also, the halo effect can directly enhance performance in some jobs. An experiment into soliciting charitable donations found that attractive charity workers were able to gather substantially more donations. (If you break down the figures, it turns out that the effect in this case is down to men being more likely to give money when asked by pretty young women.) The effect may be irrational, but even so if you are in the business of raising money for charity it would make rational sense to favour attractiveness when hiring and retaining staff.

What’s more surprising is that the premium for beauty doesn’t seem to bear much relationship to the relevance of physical appearance to the job. In one striking study, it was found that the beauty premium for prostitutes is pretty much the same as that for the general population – and of all the jobs where you would think attractiveness would be a bonus, surely that would be it.

So is there some general quality, that has something to do with beauty, and is advantageous across job roles of all types? Possibly.

You see, if there’s one quality that is an advantage no matter what job you are doing, all else being equal, it is intelligence. And it turns out there is a correlation between intelligence and beauty. As with most of these other effects, there is both a beauty premium and an ugliness penalty when it comes to measurements of intelligence, and the ugliness penalty is a substantially bigger effect.

We can find corroboration of this in educational attainment. Beautiful people do better in exams. Not just in face-to-face exams, where you could imagine the examiner might be influenced by the good looks of the student, but in written examinations as well.

It seems, therefore, that beautiful people are just a bit, well, better than their ugly counterparts. Time to ditch the stereotypes of pretty airheads. But can we find some way to explain this?

There are two basic kinds of theory in beauty studies. There is the biological theory, in which beauty is favoured because it is a signal of genetic fitness, and people prefer to mate with partners who have good genes, and there is the cultural theory, in which beauty is a matter of conformity to arbitrary societally-defined standards.

These two theories make different, testable predictions. The biological theory predicts that assessments of beauty should be similar across different cultures, while the cultural theory predicts that these assessments should vary significantly from culture to culture. As we have seen above, the data here supports the biological theory and contradicts the cultural theory. That’s not to dismiss cultural influences entirely – for example, although an explicit emphasis on female beauty is found in all cultures, this is particularly strong in Western culture. However, these differences appear to be second-order effects.

But when you try to drill down into the biological theory, to figure out exactly how beauty relates to genetic health, it all gets a bit foggy. The established indicators of beauty, such as symmetrical features and clear skin, don’t relate all that well to any significant genetic health factors. There is some indication that attractiveness may be linked to a better immune system, and a moderate association with longevity, but none of this evidence is terribly strong. The ugliness penalty does show up in this data as well, with a correlation between below average looks at age 17 and poorer health in later adulthood, but none of this comes close to touching on factors like intelligence and leadership. One can imagine that there might be some correlation linking beauty, genetic health and intelligence, but imagining doesn’t make it so, and thus far there is no solid evidence base for any such link.

One way out of this morass might be that genetic factors are amplified by upbringing. We know that attractive children are more favourably judged than their ugly peers, just as with adults. Might it be that this means they are better treated as they grow up, developing more self-confidence and thus greater abilities in learning and leadership? As with the previous theories, this “internalisation theory” sounds plausible enough. The problem is that, when self-perception is measured, beautiful people have only slightly more positive self-images than average, an effect which is dwarfed by the size of the effect of their beauty on how they are perceived by others. It is difficult to see how such a weak effect could be driving the clear advantages of attractiveness.

So it seems that, statistically at least, not only are beautiful people better treated by society, this better treatment is somewhat merited. Meanwhile, the ugly are doubly disadvantaged. But we have no simple explanation for this – it seems likely that there is some biological basis, but establishing what it is and disentangling the various effects of genetics, culture and upbringing will take some doing.

It’s not the most satisfying conclusion, but we can take comfort in one logical consequence of all this mass of data. This blog is aimed at a non-specialist audience, it is true, but nevertheless at readers of above average intelligence and educational attainment. Which means its readers are statistically likely to be better-looking than average as well.

Good for you, you gorgeous bastards.