It’s not your imagination: Life is good for beautiful people. A drumbeat of research over the past decades has found that attractive people earn more than their average-looking peers, are more likely to be given loans by banks, and are less likely to be convicted by a jury. Voters prefer better-looking candidates; students prefer better-looking professors, while teachers prefer better-looking students. Mothers, those icons of blind love, have been shown to favor their more attractive children.
Perhaps even more discouragingly, we tend to assume that beautiful people are actually better people—in realms that have nothing to do with physical beauty. Study after study has shown that we judge attractive people to be healthier, friendlier, more intelligent, and more competent than the rest of us, and we use even the smallest differences in attractiveness to make these judgments. A startling study published earlier this year found that even identical twins judge each other by relative beauty: The more attractive twin assessed the other as less athletic, less emotionally stable, and less socially competent. The less attractive twins agreed, ranking their better-looking siblings ahead. If even minute differences in attractiveness affect us so deeply and predictably, the authors wrote, “the power of appearance-based stereotypes is greater than any study has yet suggested.”
The galloping injustice of “lookism” has not escaped psychologists, economists, sociologists, and legal scholars. Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode’s 2010 book, “The Beauty Bias,” lamented “the injustice of appearance in life and law,” while University of Texas, Austin economist Daniel Hamermesh’s 2011 “Beauty Pays,” recently out in paperback, traced the concrete benefits of attractiveness, including a $230,000 lifetime earnings advantage over the unattractive.
Still, the issue has generated few serious solutions. Though to a surprising degree, we agree on who is attractive and who isn’t, differences in looks remain largely unmentionable, unlike divisions of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation. There is no lobby for the homely. How do you change a discriminatory behavior that, even though unfair, is obviously deep, hard to pin down, and largely unconscious—and affects people who would be hurt even to admit they’re in the stigmatized category?
Tentatively, experts are beginning to float possible solutions. Some have proposed legal remedies including designating unattractive people as a protected class, creating affirmative action programs for the homely, or compensating disfigured but otherwise healthy people in personal-injury courts. Others have suggested using technology to help fight the bias, through methods like blind interviews that take attraction out of job selection. There’s promising evidence from psychology that good old-fashioned consciousness-raising has a role to play, too.
None of these approaches will be a panacea, and to some aesthetes among us, even trying to counter the bias may sound ridiculous. But the reason to seek fairness for the less glamorous isn’t just social or charitable. Our preference for beautiful people makes us poor judges of qualities that have nothing to do with physical appearance—it means that when we select employees, teachers, protégés, borrowers, and even friends, we may not really be making the best choice. It’s an embarrassing and stubborn truth—and the question is now whether, having established it, social researchers can find a way to help us level the playing field.
We remember many great beauties of yore—Helen of Troy, Alexander the Great—but great contributions of history have also come from famously homely people. Socrates was considered ugly, with a pot belly and snub nose; there was the ogre-like, lazy-eyed Sartre, and George Eliot, whom Henry James called a “great horse-faced bluestocking.” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that Abraham Lincoln was “about the homeliest man I ever saw.” Lincoln himself joked often about his looks, replying to a debater who accused him of being two-faced, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”
Yet the more we know about our brains’ biases, the more remarkable it seems that these plain folks achieved such prominence. Our preference for beauty “has existed for a very long time,” said psychologist Nancy Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School whose 1999 book, “Survival of the Prettiest,” defended beauty as empowering and universal. “It’s not a 20th-century phenomenon and not a Western phenomenon, but a human dilemma.”Continued...