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"What is Beautiful is Good"

While verbal descriptions can influence first impressions, visual appearance dominates first impressions in humans, who (like other primates) are primarily visual animals. Dr. Ellen Berscheid, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, studied the effects of physical attractiveness for over 20 years. She found powerful effects from physical attractiveness in just about every conceivable type of social interaction.

What is a halo effect?

Beauty seems to create a halo effect. A halo effect is a positive evaluation that biases an observer to think well of everything connected with a person. For example, if students like a teacher, they sometimes check off "excellent" in response to every question on an end-of-term questionnaire, without thinking much about the specific items. If an athlete accomplishes great feats, people tend to assume the athlete is intelligent and an interesting person and probably a good judge of which deodorant is best, too.

Dion, Berscheid, and Walster (1972) summarized their findings in an article with the title, "What is Beautiful is Good," which summarized the attitude of their subjects in a variety of experiments. Subjects were given photographs of people to be rated for attractiveness: good, bad, or neutral. Then subjects were asked to rate the people in the photographs on a variety of other dimensions.

What effects of beauty did Berscheid and colleagues discover?

The results were clear and consistent. Physically attractive people were judged to be more intelligent, healthier, sociable, and morally upright, compared to unattractive people. In one experiment, the researchers simply presented subjects (students from introductory psychology courses) with photographs of faces. These students were told the experiment was "a study of accuracy in person perception," testing the students' abilities to "form detailed impressions of others on the basis of a very few cues." The students then rated the people shown in the photograph on many dimensions. For example...

How altruistic is this person?

How exciting?

How genuine?

How sensitive?

How outgoing?

How poised?

How sincere?

How bold?


Why was it strange that beautiful people were rated as both more sensitive and bolder?

There were 27 different personality traits in all. The order was randomized to avoid the primacy effect when all the data was combined. Students were asked to predict the likelihood of a successful marriage for the person shown in the photograph, plus the likelihood of occupational success such as holding a high status job.

The results? More attractive people were rated more likely to be "sensitive" and "bold" and all other positive traits...even when the traits seemed to contradict each other (like sensitive and bold). Physically attractive people were also judged more likely to have good marriages and hold good jobs. The halo effect seemed to affect every sort of judgment about them.

How did attractiveness of a female writer affect the ratings of essays by males?

Landy and Sigall (1974) had male subjects evaluate essays written by female students. A photograph of the female student who supposedly wrote the essay was attached to each essay. In reality, photos were paired randomly with the essays. Some essays were well written, others had grammatical errors and rambling arguments. The male subjects rated the essays as better when the author of the essay was more attractive. This effect totally swamped the effect of grammatical errors and quality of argument. The judges largely ignored those objective factors.

How can attractiveness lead to negative assumptions?

In some cases, attractiveness can lead to a negative outcome. Sigall and Ostrove (1975) had subjects pretend to be jurors judging a case. When a beautiful defendant was accused of burglary she was sentenced to less jail time than a non-beautiful defendant. However, if the defendant was accused of swindling, a more beautiful defendant was judged more harshly. In this case, the beauty of the defendant played into the stereotype of a person who might try to cheat somebody out of money using her beauty. In other words, beauty can be part of a negative stereotype. A beautiful person is sometimes assumed to be cold, aloof, uninterested in ordinary people, self-centered and conceited, even if it is not true.

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