Imagine you’ve just witnessed a traffic accident. There are two victims, one you find attractive, the other less so. Which of the two victims would you help first?

Or, imagine you have to hire someone to work for your company. They both have identical qualifications and experience, but one you find attractive, the other less attractive. Who would you hire?


Consider this classic study from the mid-1970s: Peter Benson and his colleagues left what appeared to be a lost completed college application form, stamped envelope and all, in a phone booth at an airport. The forms included a photograph of the supposed applicant, which was used to convey information about the applicant’s physical attractiveness (attractive or less attractive). Then they waited to see what would happen.

These are very simplified versions of experimental studies that psychologists have run, but there is a point to them. We not only perceive people differently based on their appearance, we also treat attractive people more favorably than we do less attractive people.

What they found was that people who found the forms were more likely to mail them or take them to an airport official if the person depicted in the photo was attractive.

Now, this might sound harmless enough, but things get a bit more serious when we start talking jobs. Studies have consistently shown that attractive people get favorable treatment even before they’ve landed the job: attractive individuals are more likely to be recommended for a job, considered more qualified for a job, considered more likely to succeed at a job, and are more likely to be hired for a job. 

And the bias doesn’t stop once they’ve been hired. Attractive people are also more likely to be paid more for a job, are more likely to be promoted, and less likely to be fired. All that just for looking attractive. Of course, attractiveness isn’t the only factor that determines whether someone will be hired, promoted, or fired, but that it even matters at all might surprise some people.

And what about the courtroom? It’s quite difficult to examine what happens in real courtrooms, so psychologists tend to rely on mock jurors deliberating on mock cases. These studies have shown quite consistently that physically attractive defendants are less likely to be perceived as guilty when they’ve been charged with a crime. Even when they are found guilty, attractive defendants receive more lenient sentences and have lower bails and fines imposed on them.

The attractiveness-leniency effect is even more pronounced in cases of sexual harassment and assault. Some studies have shown that mock jurors consider sexual harassment more likely when the defendant is less attractive, or where the plaintiff is more attractive. In rape trials, attractive defendants are sentenced more leniently than less attractive defendants, and defendants accused of raping an unattractive victim are less likely to be perceived as guilty than those accused of raping an attractive victim.

Some researchers have even quantified this effect: it is thought that less attractive defendants are about 2.5 times more likely to be found guilty by mock jurors than are attractive defendants. Also, guilty verdicts are 2.7 times more likely when the plaintiff is attractive than when they are less attractive. In one study of a mock negligence trial, a defendant who was better-looking than the victim was assessed an average pay-out of $5,623. But when the victim was the more attractive of the two, the average compensation was almost double at $10,051. 

The same is true at college. In a classic study, David Landy and Harold Sigall asked participants to rate two identical essays. To the essays, they attached either a photo of someone who was attractive or someone less attractive. Regardless of the actual quality of the work, essays paired with an attractive photograph got a higher mark than essays paired with the unattractive photographs. Which is why, where I can, I make sure the work of my students is graded anonymously! 

So, appearance matters in everyday life. Studies have shown that attractive people receive favorable treatment in almost all aspects of life. For example, attractive people are more likely to be befriended on social networking sites (they get poked more often on Facebook), they are more likely to be asked out on dates, they have sex more often, and they even have more orgasms during sex (or so I’m told—I’m not sure I’d want to be the one running that study!).

Just to be sure, it’s not all plain sailing for attractive people. In the courtroom, for example, any advantage of being attractive is lost when a defendant uses their attractiveness in the crime (a swindle, say), compared to when they don’t (in a burglary). There is also some evidence that attractiveness can be a handicap to women seeking employment in managerial positions. In explanation, it’s been suggested that attractiveness is beneficial when women apply for what are perceived as traditionally "feminine" jobs, but becomes a liability when applying for "masculine’’ jobs.

The big question, of course, is what (if anything) should be done about such preferential treatment? Some people see nothing wrong in treating attractive people more favorably. For example, some managers defend occupational biases by arguing that attractive people are simply more competent than their less attractive peers (when, in fact, there isn’t much evidence for this at all). Others are adamant that something needs to be done. They argue, for example, that it makes a mockery of the criminal justice system that defendants are treated differently based on their appearance.

And, of course, there are all kinds of ethical and moral implications too. Should we be concerned that medical professionals, say, are treating their patients differently based on how attractive they are? Is differential treatment based on physical appearance simply discrimination disguised? Is it fair that some people are being penalised simply because of the way they look?

What do you think? 

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Viren Swami, Ph.D., originally wrote this story for YouBeauty.com. It is reprinted with persmission here.