Beauty Bias

Beauty Bias

Research shows that good-looking people tend to earn more, get better jobs, and even get better grades in school than their plainer counterparts. A study may help explain why.


Biased by beauty. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

This just in: good-looking people are treated better than unattractive people. Okay, that’s not exactly news, but University of Pennsylvania psychologist Ingrid Olson wanted to see just how a pretty face affects our frame of mind. She and her colleagues showed volunteers pictures of either attractive or unattractive people. After each photo, the volunteers had to categorize an unrelated word as either good or bad.


And what we found was that when a pretty face precedes a good word, you’re much faster to categorize it. Meaning that the pretty face affects your judgments: that good things come to mind when you see an attractive face.

In contrast, looking at beautiful homes had no such effect. So it may be that attractive faces have a unique power to create a positive mindset. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Do you make snap judgments about people based on how they look? We’d all like to think the answer is “no.” But even if you don’t consciously think badly of a person because they’re unattractive, or overweight, or of a different race, you may have certain biases hard-wired into your brain. And these biases may influence your behavior without you even realizing it.

That’s the premise of Olson’s experiment and many others like it. Her study uses a technique called “priming,” which is often used in psychology to explore subconscious biases and associations. The basic idea behind it is that almost everything we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel comes with baggage. Take ice cream, for example. Just the mention of the word may trigger many different associations: the taste of your favorite flavor, a memory from childhood involving ice cream, the feeling of hunger, a mental image of a hot fudge sundae, and so on. Chances are, it also puts your brain in a generally positive frame of mind (unless you really hate ice cream, or it upsets your stomach). That doesn’t mean you’re going to jump out of your seat and do cartwheels, but it does mean that at least for a few seconds, your brain has slightly better access to positive ideas than negative ones. In fact, if you immediately tried to categorize other words (like “happy,” “delightful,” “tragic,” or “disgusting’) as positive or negative, you’d label the positive words just a little bit quicker than the negative ones. The thought of ice cream primed your brain to be more receptive to positive ideas.

So, you might say that Olson’s experiment shows that attractive people are like ice cream. To choose the photos, she looked through the Internet, old yearbooks, and other sources for pictures of people, and asked subjects to rate their attractiveness on a scale from 1 to 10. Only the most attractive and the most unattractive faces were used in her priming study.

In the priming study, she told her subjects that they would be seeing various words, and asked them to categorize them as either good or bad, as quickly as possible. She told them that sometimes they would see a face before seeing a word, but to ignore the face and just focus on the word. Even though she told them to ignore the face, the priming still worked: they were quicker to categorize good words after seeing the attractive faces. To see if the priming effect came simply from beauty, rather than beautiful people, she tried the experiment again, using pictures of beautiful and ugly homes instead. This time, there was no priming effect. So there appears to be something special about attractive faces that puts us in a positive frame of mind.

Does this mean that her subjects, or people in general, are intentionally nice to attractive people and mean to unattractive people? Not at all. But it does help explain why attractive people benefit from something called a “halo effect": that beautiful people tend to get better grades, get hired more often, and get paid better than do regular-looking people. These significant real-world biases may start with something very simple and subtle that’s hard-wired into our brains.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is priming? How was it used in this study?
  2. When the subjects categorized good words a little bit faster after seeing a pretty face, why does that suggest an automatic bias?
  3. What was the purpose of repeating the study with beautiful and ugly homes?
  4. Do you think that our positive associations with beauty come from our biology or our culture? Why?
  5. What other biases might be measured with a priming experiment?

You may want to check out the February 24, 2006 Science Update Podcast to hear this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: an ancient soil-enrichment technology; life outside the solar system; our instant beauty-detectors; our bias for beauty;  and running out of metals.

For Educators

In the NY Times Learning Network lesson Only Skin Deep? A Look at Beauty Around the World, students examine and compare notions of beauty in cultures around the world and explore the connection between what is deemed "beautiful" and cultural history.

The article Beauty, by Australia Broacasting Company's Dr. Karl and featured on ABC's Science Online, delves into the relationship between body symmetry and attractiveness.

The Implicit Association Task homepage offers a variety of online priming experiments that students and teachers can try. The experiments explore our automatic biases toward different types of people or groups.

Science and economics writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses priming experiments like these in this interview called 'Blink': The Power of Impulse and Intuition, on the National Public Radio site.

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