By Emma Young
Physically attractive people are routinely judged as “superior” in other ways – as more trustworthy, for example, honest, and intelligent. However, evidence of the unjustified “attractiveness-halo” effect tends to come from studies in which snap judgments were made with no feedback or impact on the people making the judgment. Gayathri Pandey and Vivian Zayas of Cornell University in the United States wanted to examine how this bias would work out in the longer term, when refuted by actual data. For example, if we get the information that an attractive investor is actually losing us money while an unattractive investor is making profits, are we sure to drop this bias quickly, at least in relation to these individuals? Shockingly, the couple’s new newspaper is in British Journal of Psychology suggests not.
In a first study, 91 students were shown four photos each of supposed “financial partners” (all of the same sex). Two of the composite faces were rated independently as attractive and two as unattractive. The students were given a hypothetical $ 2,000 to make as much money as possible. In 50 trials with all male partners and another 50 with all female partners, they had to click a face to choose one to invest the money in, and each time they received feedback on whether they had lost or won money.
Before starting, the students were told that some of the partners would be more helpful than others. They were also encouraged to try them all out to see which were better and which were worse. What they weren’t told was that there were actually two equally disadvantageous partners (who provided relatively large immediate gains but smaller long-term gains or even long-term losses) – one attractive and one unattractive – and two beneficial partners (the better long-term gains), once again attractive and once again not.
As expected, the students initially favored the attractive partners. But even after they had received feedback on the performance of each individual in 50 attempts, they were still characterized by the attractiveness. In fact, they preferred the attractivedisadvantageous Partner about the unattractiveadvantageous Partner. They also reported that the attractive partners were more helpful. (There was some evidence of improved performance in the second experimental block, although the team’s analysis suggests that this reflects better use of feedback rather than a significantly better rating of attractiveness.)
Perhaps 50 attempts were not enough for the participants to precisely differentiate between helpful and unhelpful partners and to neglect attractiveness, argued the researchers. So they did another experiment, this time with 135 participants, each doing 100 attempts (with either all male or all female partners).
The results were different – but not drastic. When the participants went through the 100 feedback rounds, they showed a preference for the beneficial partners. However, after a loss, they always returned more quickly to an attractive vs. unattractive partner, and in the end the attractive-disadvantageous partner was still as popular a choice as the unattractive-advantageous. “Even with more opportunities to learn more about partner profitability, time has not noticeably weakened the attractiveness effect,” the researchers write.
The participants were then asked how trustworthy they rate the four partners. The attractive two were clearly favored. Indeed, the researchers’ analysis suggests that a perceived association between attractiveness and trustworthiness explains the results – we seem to use attractiveness as a signal of trustworthiness and rely on it, even in the face of financial losses (albeit more hypothetical).
It is of course possible that with more studies that could provide a clearer picture of trends in financial gains and losses, the attractiveness bias would have been removed. Only further research will tell. And, as the researchers themselves determine, a study that involved American college students, only white faces and more hypothetical than real money, is just a starting point for research in this area, not the final word. However, the new work certainly suggests that the attractiveness halo is shaping our judgments at the expense of ourselves for much longer than one might assume.
– What’s a face worth? The attractiveness of the face influences the experience-based decision on money
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles