Friday, November 12, 2010

Pretty and Witty and Bright

What can beauty buy for you these days? More dates and party invitations? Absolutely. Fewer speeding tickets? Sure. Better chances of being offered the job even after a so-so interview? You bet. How about a world that understands your many unique qualities, a world that pays attention to the nuances of your individual personality, a world that “gets” you? Quite possibly yes. Or at least your odds are better than that of your homelier friends. So says a recent study in which first impressions formed about attractive people were found to be more accurate than those formed about less attractive people.

In the study, groups of college students of varying degrees of physical beauty were allowed to interact for a scant 3 minutes, after which they attempted to assess each others’ personalities.* Additionally they rated the attractiveness of other members in the group and lastly answered questions about their own personalities. In order to minimize confusion and maximize judgmental shallowness, I have opted to divide the participants into two categories: pretty and ugly.† Researchers compared how subjects scored on positive traits (relative to the average) with their attractiveness score. They also examined the consistency of perceivers’ impressions of specific personality traits with the self-reported personality questionnaires of both pretty and ugly subjects. This latter phenomenon is called “distinctive accuracy”. Greater distinctive accuracy means that first impressions about a subject more closely match that subject’s own view of their personality. For instance, a person who thought himself to be very sociable but not as strongly intellectual would be seen this way by others, even if he was viewed as being more sociable and more intellectual than the “average” person.

Fig 1. Fake data that did not come from the study discussed here, or from any other study. Really. But it's easier on the eyes than the real data, which means you'll pay closer attention to it and rate it more favorably than if I'd shown you the actual data.

It has been observed numerous times that pretty people tend to be perceived as possessing more overall positive traits than ugly folk. Pretty individuals are seen as smarter, friendlier and generally just better than their ugly counterparts. This is termed the “attractiveness halo effect”. It was no surprise that the results of this new study followed the trend. Members of the group who were perceived to be prettier were also seen as being graced with larger servings of intelligence and other desirable traits. To remind us of the platitude that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, attractiveness ratings were not entirely unanimous. Some subjects were ranked as being ugly by the majority of participants, but still had one or two fans who found them attractive. Interestingly, in these cases, the ugly subjects also benefited from the halo effect. Those who rated an ugly subject’s appearance favorably, lavished equal praise on their inner qualities.

Results regarding distinctive accuracy featured a few more twists.‡ With all this talk about positive biases and preferential treatment, it is easy to assume that more attractive people would be viewed with less accuracy. Wouldn’t they just be seen as generically flawless? So lacking in imperfections that all their good qualities were uniformly present? In actuality, the results showed the opposite. Personality assessments for pretty subjects were more accurate (ie, better matched to the self-reported questionnaires) than those for ugly subjects. Why would this happen? The authors note two possible causative factors. One is that the pretty subjects may simply attract more attention from their perceivers. People want to connect with good-looking individuals, so they make more of an effort and in doing so manage to observe more detail. The other possible factor revolved around the person being perceived, the “target”, rather than the perceiver. In order for perceiver to glean information about the target, the target must first put out some sort of cues. The authors suggest that pretty targets, using the superior social skills of someone that spent a lifetime being beautiful, are more likely to make information about themselves available to the perceiver. For support of this idea, we go back to the subjects that were rated as ugly by most participants but as pretty by a few. As mentioned before, these subjects were viewed by their admirers as having more positive traits. However, they were not necessarily viewed with greater distinctive accuracy by these same admirers.§ While they benefited from the halo effect, they lacked the confidence to give their perceivers enough material to form accurate impressions about their personalities. They were too introverted to read.

This may not be the happiest news for mousey wallflower types. However, it’s mildly encouraging to hear that our ability as humans to accurately judge personality doesn’t completely shut down when we encounter physical beauty. Shallow and biased though we are, we can at least tell which of an attractive individual’s copious and remarkable positive traits are their most pronounced. We can differentiate that they are more generous than they are eloquent, for instance. Though, of course, they still possess greater generosity and eloquence (and intelligence and sociability and impressive math skills…) than the ugly person sitting next to them. We’re also not too bad at counting up who has more favorable personality traits when comparing two similarly attractive individuals. The trouble really starts when we are faced with a choice between the ugly but brilliant job candidate and the beautiful but incompetent one. But, as Oscar Wilde wrote, “it is better to be beautiful than to be good,” so even that is a simple enough problem to solve.

* This was accomplished via a 21-item questionnaire based on “Big Five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism…which together make the acronym OCEAN, how cute) along with 3 additional questions about general perceived positive qualities.

† In reality they were rated on a 1-7 scale of attractiveness, and consensual attractiveness (the average of the ratings from the entire group for each subject) was considered along with subjects’ attractiveness ratings by individual perceivers. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

‡ Please recall one more time that distinctive accuracy is the weighing of specific personality traits relative to one another, rather than just an overall thumbs up given to all possible desirable traits.

§ We’re talking about the really ugly people now, the statistically ugly, not just the average Joes and plain Janes. These individuals were 1 standard deviation or more below the average level of attractiveness.

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