How the world treats beautiful people

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“Attractiveness is the E-ZPass through life,” one saying goes. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” implores another. Turns out both sayings have some truth to them. Either way, the evidence suggests, beautiful people really do experience life a little differently.

Years of research have confirmed that beautiful people are seen as more intelligent, happier, and better-adjusted than their more ordinary-looking peers. In school, teachers call on beautiful students more, and in the workplace, attractive people are more likely to get jobs and make more money[1]. Even newborns prefer to look at faces that adults judge to be more attractive[2].

In an pioneering study[3], participants were given three envelopes, each of which contained a photograph. The person depicted in each photo had previously been rated by researchers as being very attractive, average, or not attractive.

Using only the photograph, participants were then asked to rate each person on 27 personality traits, as well as estimating their happiness, career status, and the success of their marriage. Sure enough, attractive people were judged as being higher in socially desirable personality traits and expected to lead better lives.

In another study, participants were divided into two groups. Each group was given the same essay to read, along with a photo of the alleged “author.” In one group, the photo was of a woman rated as being highly attractive; in the other, the photo was of a woman rated as unattractive. Participants in the two groups were asked to read the essay and rate the quality of the writing. No mention was made of the accompanying author photo.

The results showed that the essay purportedly written by the attractive woman was judged by participants to be better written, more in-depth, and more creative than the essay purportedly written by the less attractive woman—even though both groups had received the same essay[4].

Attractiveness also affects success in business. In one study, real estate brokers who were attractive were found to earn 12 percent more[5]. The more attractive the broker was, the more expensive the properties listed and the higher the accompanying commission.

Perhaps most surprising of all, attractiveness appears to affect the fairness of the criminal justice system. One study in the United States found that attractiveness influences people’s judgments of guilt and innocence[6]. Attractive defendants get fewer convictions and lighter sentences because juries see them as likable and treat them more leniently[7]. (The exception is “swindlers”—people whose crimes rely on using their attractiveness to exploit others—who receive harsher sentences[8].)

Our differential treatment of attractive people may be due due to what psychologists call the “halo effect.” When we judge a person, we tend to see them holistically, viewing their appearance, personality, and behavior as a unified package. As a result, we often use one easily discernible quality—such as attractiveness—as a proxy for their other qualities.

But attractiveness can also have its downsides, activating feelings of jealousy and competition. In one study, highly attractive women were judged by other women as being egotistical, vain, materialistic, snobby, and bad at marriage[9].


1. López Bóo, F., Rossi, M., & Urzua, S. (2012). The labor market return to an attractive face: Evidence from a field experiment. Economics Letters, 118, 170–172.
2. Langlois, J.H., Roggman, L.A., Casey, R.J., Ritter, J.M., Rieser-Danner, L.A., & Jenkins, V.Y. (1987). Infant preferences for attractive faces: Rudiments of a stereotype? Developmental Psychology, 23, 363-369.
3. Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285-290.
4. 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, 299-304.
5. Salter, S.P., Mixon, F.G. and King, E.W. (2012). Broker beauty and boon: a study of physical attractiveness and its effect on real estate brokers’ income and productivity. Applied Financial Economics, 22, 811-825.
6. Efran, M.G. (1974). The effect of physical appearance on the judgment of guilt, interpersonal attraction, and severity of recommended punishment in a simulated jury task. Journal of Research in Personality, 8, 45–54.
7. Beckham, C.M., Spray, B.J., & Pietz, C.A. (2007). Jurors’ locus of control and defendants’ attractiveness in death penalty sentencing. The Journal of Social Psychology, 147, 285-298.
8. Wuensch, K.L., Chia, R.C., Castellow, W.A., Chuang, C. and Cheng, B. (1993). Effects of physical attractiveness, sex, and type of crime on mock juror decisions: A replication with chinese students. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 24, 414-427.
9. Dermer, M.L. & Thiel, D.L. (1975). When beauty may fail. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 1168-1176.