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From picking mates to choosing politicians, new research says society's bias toward attractiveness has ugly. By Charlie Gillis March 13, As the owner of a boutique modelling agency in Vancouver, Liz Bell has to be careful about the dazzling women and men she chooses to represent. Looks are paramount, she concedes, but in an industry requiring poise, tenacity and punctuality, character is important, too. Some are obvious. Such experiences have made Bell a lay authority on an enigma scientists have been unwrapping for the past half-century.
For millennia, philosophers and poets have marvelled at the mysterious power attractive people wield over us. Only in the s, though, did psychological research reveal the sad truth: basically, we persuade ourselves of their greatness, projecting virtues onto the beautiful without the slightest knowledge of whether they possess them. Study after study has since shown we assume them to be smarter, kinder, more generous and more trustworthy than their less comely counterparts—even when we have nothing more to go on than pictures of their faces.
It applies whether the target of our gaze is a potential mate or a prospective head of government. To evolutionary biologists, these snap judgments make sense. Attractive people, they reason, are the big winners of natural selection.
They enjoy better success finding mates. They have more children, they get better jobs and they make more money than plain-looking folk. Their pleasing appearance is thought to ify good physical and mental health, so experts believe our desire to be close to them, or have them lead us, may be rooted in our primal instinct to preserve the species. Are the piercing eyes and glossy mane of, say, Justin Trudeau any more indicative of virtue than the shiny forehead and middle-age drift of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair?
Are attractive people more honest in business and more loyal in marriage than plain people? On these questions, researchers are just starting to deliver answers. And the early returns are disconcerting. An ongoing series of Japanese studies has concluded that attractive young males are relatively disinclined to co-operate with others or to share money, and while good-looking females come off better, Israeli psychologists have found they tend to be more socially conformist and self-promoting than observers p them to be. New Canadian research, meanwhile, is diving deep into how beauty influences politics, finding that good-looking politicians of both sexes enjoy a distinct advantage when wooing uninformed voters—a result they fear unscrupulous campaign operatives will use in the future, favouring attractive candidates over good ones, or limiting the amount of useful information available to voters.
Not all of this comes as a shock. Surely, good-looking men have more opportunity to cheat. You might wonder how something as subjective as physical appearance can lend itself to scientific inquiry. Beauty, after all, lies in the eye of the beholder—or so Plato taught us.
But even he must have noticed that the beholders have remarkably similar tastes: symmetry of facial and body structure; complementary features like full hair and smooth skin; hormonal indicators such as square jawlines on men and smaller chins on women.
This makes it surprisingly easy to de experiments on physical attractiveness. Most begin with a panel of randomly selected judges, who rate the attractiveness of the subjects, or photos of them. Researchers then categorize the subjects based on their relative attractiveness, and use those sets to perform experiments. They might compare how they act in games of trust. Or they might observe how others judge attractive, versus unattractive, people. Technology plays a bigger and bigger role. A few years ago, neuroscientists at Duke University wired 22 college-aged women to MRI brain scanners, showing each photos of male faces of varying attractiveness, followed by written blurbs about the moral behaviour of the men they had just viewed.
In doing so, they may have pinpointed the physical source of the beautiful-is-good stereotype. In the Duke experiments, it surged with neural activity, not only when the women viewed the faces of attractive men, but also when they viewed the positive statements.
To the researchers, this suggested overlap in what are supposed to be two distinct functions—judging attractiveness and assessing moral goodness. So, essentially, we appear to be confused, possibly to our own detriment. If our responses to dishy humans occur in some instantaneous jumble of subconscious neural activity, how are we to protect ourselves from the handsome devils and femmes fatales of this world? These are not Handsome succesful good looking for beautiful girl processes.
Among heterosexual college-aged men who were in permanent relationships, the good-looking ones averaged 2. No such link between appearance and infidelity surfaced among attractive females. This discrepancy lends poignancy to a thread that broke out a few years later on the online dating site PlentyOfFish.
But the lovelorn poster was having none of it. Its role in other arenas is more worrisome. A Japanese study published infor example, concluded attractive young men are less likely, relative to women, older men or less-good-looking men, to co-operate for shared financial benefit. The researchers tested participants with one-on-one money-exchange games, in which mutual generosity could yield modest reward for both partners, yet required trust to benefit both parties. The paper, published in Evolution and Human Behaviorfound that young, attractive men skewed heavily to the selfish side, receiving more money on average and giving back less.
Based on findings of studies, the researchers ventured that confidence in their appearance, or their capacity to obtain resources, enabled attractive young men to share less and take greater risks. In other words, they press their evolutionary advantage. The impact on election outcomes varies from contest to contest. But it seems clear the beautiful-is-good stereotype operates on voters as surely as it does on lovers and money-givers. Our own Prime Minister may be a case in point.
In February16 months before the start of the recent election campaign, public opinion polls in Canada took a curious turn. During the following year, his leadership positives never appreciably declined. His pleasing physical presentation became his most noticeable feature, filling the conversation void left by the absence of reliable information about his trustworthiness.
On Oct. Shortly after, he and his wife appeared on the s of Vogue magazine. Last March, Daniel Stockemer, a political studies professor at the University of Ottawa, published the latest in a series of studies that use images of candidates in U. In a second trial, mock voters were given additional information about the political experience and competence of candidates, including brief career histories. In these cases, appearance played no discernible role in vote choices. Competency trumped good looks. How the beauty premium might affect contests at the leadership level is less clear, Stockemer says.
Yet all of these positive feelings developed, because he seemed like a nice, good-looking guy you could trust. The question is whether that trust is well-placed. For comely spouses and business professionals, as surely as for appealing politicians, here lies the risk. Tony Blair was arguably the most pleasant-looking British prime minister in living memory. John Edwards, a blue-eyed former U. The punitive sentiment registers more plainly at the private level. Variations on the aforementioned money-exchange experiment found participants of both sexes returned less money to attractive givers they felt had been ungenerous than they did to unattractive givers.
We called this a beauty penalty. Wilson, who conducted his study on students at three U. While past research shows visually appealing job candidates enjoy a clear advantage over equally qualified but less attractive rivals, it also suggests the lookers wind up paying a price after winning their positions. Research done five years ago in Israel found attractive women—though assumed by female peers to be independent and concerned for others—reported their own values to be socially conformist and self-promoting.
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Survival of the prettiest: The mysterious power of attractive people