When you see a really attractive woman, you might be struck by her beauty, but does her beauty affect what you assume is going on in her head? Or what kind of character she has? Perhaps. People tend to assume that physically attractive people hold other positive qualities just by looking at them—this is one example of the “Halo Effect” or what is also known as the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype.1 For example, observers assume that good-looking people are more socially skilled, better at their jobs, and more emotionally healthy (e.g., less anxiety or loneliness).2 But is there any truth to this perception? Are hot people actually higher on these qualities? Researchers examined this question in a recent study published in Psychological Science.3
Women were videotaped in a laboratory as they completed surveys on their personality traits (e.g., shyness, creativity) and values (e.g., conformity, hedonism). Then some observers (unaware of the women’s actual personalities) watched the videotapes and rated the women on these same characteristics solely by looking at them. As expected, the more beautiful the women, the more observers assumed that the women had positive qualities—more Agreeable (warm and friendly), Open (innovative and creative), Extraverted (gregarious and outgoing), Conscientious (responsible and diligent), and Emotionally Stable (low anxiety and neuroticism). But these assumptions did not correspond at all to how the women rated themselves! There were actually no associations between a woman’s physical attractiveness and her personality; hot women were no more likely to be friendly, open, outgoing, responsible, or stable than were less hot women.
So hotness doesn’t forecast personality, but does it tell us something about personal values (for example, being materialistic or striving for status/power)? Here, when observers rated pictures of hot women, they didn’t assume anything about the women’s values based on attractiveness, but attractive women said that they valued conformity (e.g., following along with what most others appear to be doing) and tradition (e.g., doing things simply because they are customary) more than did less attractive women. Attractive women also valued universalism (e.g., seeking peace, justice, and equality for all peoples regardless of social group or nationality) and self-direction (e.g., independence and freedom) less than did unattractive women. In other words, as women’s physical beauty went up, so did their tendency toward conformity and their preference for normative, “customary” behaviors. In addition, hot women expressed a tendency to be less creative and independent, and to value equality and social justice less.
So it turns out that hot women do have a somewhat different set of values than less attractive women, although observers don’t seem to pick up on this. Not only does there appear to be zero evidence to support the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype in this case, it might actually be the opposite! More attractive women in this study were actually shallower, on some dimensions, than their less attractive counterparts. Bottom line—if you’re looking to date someone with good moral character, you might be better off with someone who’s “attractively challenged.”
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1Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285–290. doi:10.1037/h0033731
2Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M., & Smoot, M. (2000). Maxims or myths of beauty? A metaanalytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 390–423.
3Segal-Caspi, L., Roccas, S., & Sagiv, L. (2012). Don’t judge a book by its cover, revisited: Perceived and reported traits and values of attractive women. Psychological Science, 23 (10) 1112–1116.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.