The Moral Hazards of Being Beautiful

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Emily Bobrow headlined “The Moral Hazards of Being Beautiful”:

Beauty has its privileges. Studies reliably show that the most physically attractive among us tend to get more attention from parents, better grades in school, more money at work and more satisfaction from life. A study published in January in the Journal of Economics and Business found that good-looking banking CEOs take in over $1 million more in total compensation, on average, than their lesser-looking peers. “Good looks pay off,” the authors write.

New research from Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance similarly finds that comely managers of mutual funds lure more investments and enjoy more promotions than their homelier counterparts, even though their funds don’t perform as well. The researchers suggest this performance gap may be because handsome managers approach risk with hubristic levels of confidence.

While we like to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, studies consistently show that most people prefer smooth skin, thick shiny hair and symmetrical bodies, as well as height for men and curves for women. We are suckers, basically, for signs of youth, good health and reproductive fitness. “Look, if there were no standards, then beauty would have no impact,” says economist Daniel Hamermesh, author of the 2011 book “Beauty Pays.”

Scientists attribute the human tendency to give attractive people better treatment to something called the halo effect. Basically, we tend to assume that good looks are a sign of intelligence, trustworthiness and good character and that ugliness is similarly more than skin deep. “Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference,” Aristotle observed. This may help explain why attractive people are less likely to be arrested or convicted, even after controlling for criminal involvement, according to a 2019 study of nationally representative data published in the journal Psychiatry, Psychology and Law.

Given all the benefits afforded to the beautiful, it’s surprising that there has been so little research on how lookers actually behave. Are good-looking people actually more likely to be good, or do they exploit their advantages for personal gain?

Xijing Wang, a social psychologist at City University of Hong Kong, addressed these questions in a set of five experiments involving more than 1,300 participants in the U.S. and China, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior in November 2022. After giving people money and raffle tickets and asking them to share, Wang and colleagues found that those who rated their own looks highly were more likely to keep the items for themselves. Participants who were primed to feel more attractive were also more likely to agree with the statements “I demand the best because I’m worth it” and “I feel entitled to more of everything.”

“Due to their great bargaining power, attractive individuals may have learned that they deserve better,” Wang writes. Yet this sense of entitlement was apparent only when participants knew their actions and responses were anonymous. When their choices could be seen and noted by others, even the comeliest curbed their selfishness. “In other words, due to image or reputation concerns, attractive people may not want to demonstrate self-interested behavior in public,” Wang explains.

Her findings reinforce other studies that show that physically attractive people often cultivate self-serving beliefs. A 2014 paper in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, for example, found that those who saw themselves as good-looking sensed they had more power and higher status than their plainer peers. They were also more likely to attribute growing economic inequality in the U.S. to the hard work and talent of those at the top.

Participants who were prompted to recall a time when they felt alluring were more inclined to agree with the statements ‘‘Having some groups on top really benefits everybody’’ and ‘‘Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.” They were also less likely to donate a $50 gift card to charity than those who were asked to recall a time when they felt ugly.

These findings are in keeping with an extensive literature on how people rationalize luck. Essentially, lucky people tend to believe that life is fair and fate rewards merit, whereas unlucky people are often more alert to systemic bugs and more supportive of efforts to correct for them. A 2016 study in the Journal of Public Economics, for example, found that people who were randomly assigned hard counting tasks in a lab were more inclined to blame their poor performance on circumstantial factors, such as the clarity of the instructions, and more likely to share tokens in a subsequent game. Those who enjoyed an easier counting task not only ascribed their success to personal effort but also were considerably stingier with the tokens.

“If people win the genetic lottery, they get many societal advantages, and this in turn affects their views of the world,” says Andrea Fazio, an economist at Tor Vergata University of Rome. Fazio analyzed a nationally representative survey of Germans who rated how much they agreed with statements about money and fairness, such as “Income and wealth should be redistributed towards ordinary people.” The results, which he reported last year in the journal Economics & Human Biology, showed that the respondents who were seen as physically attractive by interviewers were also more likely to say that efforts to redistribute wealth were wrongheaded because everyone gets what they deserve.

“Is this purely selfish behavior? I don’t know,” Fazio observes. He notes that while attractive people may be moved to rationalize or dismiss their social and labor-market advantages, they might think or behave differently if they understood the extent to which they benefited from a beauty premium. “Maybe they would be more generous if they knew how much luck was involved.”

Although studies are scarce, it would be wrong to say that beautiful people reliably defy presumptions of goodness. In three large surveys of Americans published in 2020 in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, researchers found that attractiveness correlated with slightly more reports of volunteering or donating money to friends. The authors allow, however, that this could be because good-looking people tend to have wider social networks, so they are probably asked for help or money more often. “It is also possible that more attractive people may crave social desirability and hence be more likely to over-report their giving behaviors,” they add.

Yet those of us who never got that genetic golden ticket should take heart: The halo effect appears to go both ways. A number of studies show that goodness often enhances our looks. A paper in PLOS One in February, for example, reports that people found faces in photos more attractive when they learned the subjects were honest, kind and not aggressive. The results suggest that “facial attractiveness is malleable,” the authors write. Or as Sappho observed: “What is beautiful is good and what is good will soon be beautiful.”

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