We all know the saying, “It’s better to be beautiful in body than in soul”, but scientists have recently discovered another common cognitive bias that is difficult to combat:
Good-looking people are more trustworthy. Physically attractive people are usually considered “exceptional” in other ways as well, such as being more reliable, honest, and intelligent.
However, evidence of an unsubstantiated “halo of attractiveness” tended to be based on studies that used hasty conclusions with no feedback or consequences for the people making the judgments.
Gayatri Pandey and Vivian Zayas of Cornell University decided to study how this bias plays out in the long run when it conflicts with factual data. If, say, a person is told that an attractive investor is actually losing his money and an unattractive investor is making a profit, can he dismiss this bias against specific people? Alarmingly, a study published in the British Journal of Psychology suggests otherwise.
In a preliminary study, 91 students were shown four photos each of their prospective “financial partners” (all of the same gender). Two faces were rated as attractive and two as unattractive. Students were given a hypothetical $2000 and told to earn as much as they could. A total of 50 experiments were conducted with all male partners and another 50 with female partners. The participants had to choose the face of the person who would handle their money, and each time they were told whether they lost or gained money.
Before the experiment began, students were informed that some partners would be more helpful than others. They were asked to try each to see who was better and who was worse. And they were not told that there were actually two equally unprofitable partners (who brought relatively large immediate returns but smaller long-term profits or even long-term losses) – one attractive and one unattractive, and two profitable partners (who brought higher long-term profits), also one attractive and one unattractive.
As expected, students initially showed a preference for attractive partners. But even after receiving feedback on the results, they remained faithful to their preferences.
In fact, they preferred an attractive and unprofitable partner to an unattractive, profitable one. And they stated that they found attractive partners more rewarding. (There were some improvements in the second block of trials, although, judging by the authors’ analysis, this reflects better use of feedback rather than a change in the attractiveness halo).
According to the researchers, perhaps 50 trials were not enough to accurately distinguish useful partners from useless ones and, therefore, reduce their attractiveness. So they conducted another experiment, this time with 135 participants, each completing 100 prospective deals.
The results differed, but not radically. When participants used 100 attempts and received feedback on them, they did begin to favor the advantageous partner. However, after some losses, they were even quicker to return to an attractive partner rather than an unattractive one.
“Even time and information had no discernible effect on the attraction effect”, the researchers write.
Subsequently, participants were asked how trustworthy they thought the four partners were. Preference was clearly given to the two attractive ones. The researchers suggest that we perceive attractiveness as a signal of trustworthiness and rely on it even in the face of financial loss (albeit hypothetical).
Perhaps with more attempts to clarify trends in financial gains and losses, the attractiveness bias would be eliminated. But only further research will show that.
And, as the researchers themselves point out, the work involved only white American college students and hypothetical, not real money, so it is only a starting point for research in this area, not the final word. However, the new work definitely suggests that the halo of attractiveness colors our judgments far more than one might assume.