The topic of beauty is prevalent among all cultures and all throughout human history, a mysterious and seductive force on the psyche that consistently reveals its influence in stories of politics, marriage, power, and social status. The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” simply means that what we consider beautiful is based on the stories we tell ourselves—a subjective experience that is colored by the unconscious and culture at large.
You’ve probably heard these stories before: a beautiful girl not getting a speeding ticket because, you know, she’s beautiful. Or a handsome guy getting away with more than he should. Physical attractiveness creates a powerful first impression on the mind, so powerful that we may go beyond looks and start creating impressions on success, status, parenting, and intelligence, even if it isn’t true.
To understand mankind’s weakness to all things beautiful, we need to acknowledge the power of first impressions.
First impressions linger in the mind and influence the way we see and treat others. Once that impression is rooted, it takes a lot to change our attitude. If you go to a party and the host is generous and kind, you’ll forgive him when he does a keg stand or spills cranberry juice on your white shirt. This comes from our adaptive and evolutionary behavior.
As David McRaney says in You Are Not So Smart:
“To speed up processing, your brain tends first to apply very simple labels to the things you encounter minute by minute. You can thank your ancestors for paying attention to these labels for millions of years, because some of the things you are most likely to encounter in life are now hardwired into your mind as being good or bad, desirable or undesirable.
When you make decisions and kindle beliefs based on innate sensations, psychologists say you are using the affect heuristic. An affect, in psychological terms, is a feeling that needs no further analysis. It isn’t a coherent thought with words and symbols attached, but rather, a raw emotional state, a twinge or a jolt or just a general sensation that sets a tone or a mood.”
This heuristic influences what psychologists call the halo effect. The halo effect causes one trait (e.g. beauty) to drastically color your perception of all other traits. If you think someone is beautiful, you are likely to assume they’re also smart, ambitious, interesting, etc. We’ve all made these assumptions before, for good or ill. McRaney states:
“In the last one hundred years of research, beauty seems to be the one thing that most reliably produces the halo effect. Beauty is shorthand, a placeholder term for an invisible mental process in which you are privy only to the final output. Like the words delicious and disgusting, it describes a distinct variation of the affect heuristic. To see and judge a face as beautiful is to experience a tempest of brain activity informed by your culture, your experiences, and the influences of your deep evolutionary inheritance.”
Let’s take a look at some of these studies.
Why Beauty Is The Most Powerful First Impression
In 1972, psychologists Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster conducted a study to see just how beauty elicits the halo effect. The subjects, however, were told that the study was focused on first impressions. Each person received three envelopes containing three photographs thats the researchers rated on a scale of attractiveness—highly attractive, average, and not so attractive. The subjects had to look at the photographs and then judge 27 different personality traits. They had to determine which person in the photograph possessed these traits, like altruism, stability, etc. Then they had to judge whether these people were happy, along with other pursuits like marriage, parenting, and career.
The results? With nothing but a picture to base their judgements, highly attractive people possessed most of the traits and more strongly than others. They were also happier and more successful, were greater parents and had better jobs.
Wow. All of these assumptions were determined by one picture. But it makes sense when we hear stories like this because humans are always predicting, always going beyond what’s at face value. This is like seeing someone wearing black-framed glasses and thinking they’re sophisticated or smart or nerdy, when all they’re doing is just wearing glasses. If they happen to be smart or nerdy, this impacts our memory and in turn how we begin to label others wearing those glasses.
In another study done in 1974, researchers gave essays to the subjects with a photo attached to it. Some received an essay with a photo of an attractive woman, and others received a photo with an unattractive woman. The participants had to rate the quality of the writing, and researchers didn’t mention the photo.
The result? Attractive woman = better writing, more in-depth and creative.
The catch? The essays were identical.
As David McRaney concludes:
“When the scientists ran the study with essays purposely written to be awful, the disparity between the ratings was magnified. As Landy and Sigall wrote, you expect better performances from attractive people, but when they fail, you are also more likely to forgive them.
In short, as Landy and Sigall pointed out, you expect more from pretty people well before you know anything else about them, and when they fall short of your expectations, you give them more of a chance to prove themselves than you do people less symmetrical or slender or muscle-bound or bosom-heaving or whatever cultural or era-appropriate norms of attractiveness are woven into your perception.”
The halo effect isn’t limited to physical attractiveness. That 5-star reviewed vacuum cleaner, the New York Times Bestseller stamped on the cover, Oprah’s Book Club, the Pulitzer Prize—all of these labels have profound influences on whether we give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down, whether we pull out the credit card or not. It’s a mental shortcut to allow us to make quick decisions instead of sitting there weighing all the different variables.
We Are Our Own Worst Critic
Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so much of our self-esteem and what we believe to be beautiful is diluted by the media. Without self-awareness, we can be pulled left and right in search of what’s beautiful and acceptable. The ideal thin woman or a guy with a chiseled jawline with abs is ruthlessly and inaccurately portrayed. People are becoming more aware of the effects of Photoshop and other tools, but it proves to be equally difficult to set aside artificial standards of beauty and to be more compassionate towards ourselves and others.
Dove did a wonderful campaign and study on this showcasing how we’re our own worst critic, and when others describe us, they celebrate and appreciate, whereas we criticize and condemn.
The danger in all of this is ignorance of the halo effect, being blinded by the luster of a good hair day or a popular cultural label. To overcome this, a scientific and psychological understanding of beauty and its effects are helpful. It’s difficult to not put things on a pedestal, to not view items or people in a hierarchy. With careful consider of what we’re viewing and telling ourselves, perhaps we can achieve a level of objectivity that allows us to not be blinded by the halo above one’s head, and so we may ultimately learn to appreciate beauty in all of its forms.
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[Source: Dion, Karen, Ellen Berscheid, and Elain Walster. “What is Beautiful Is Good.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24, no. 3 (1972): 285-90.
Landy, D., & Sigall, H. (1974). Beauty is talent: Task evaluation as a function of the performer's physical attractiveness. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 29(3), 299-304. doi:10.1037/h0036018
You Are Not So Smart By David McRaney]