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Who will fight the beauty bias?

It’s deep, unconscious, and surprisingly universal—and means beautiful people get a much better deal. But righting injustice isn’t easy when no one wants to call themselves plain.

Chiqui Esteban/Globe staff

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.”

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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.

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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.”

As subjective as “beauty” sounds, human beings agree to remarkable degree on who is attractive and who is not. Beauty, as it turns out, is not in the eye of the beholder. Generally, it means feminine features for women, like large eyes and a round face, and masculine features for men, like a square jaw. Even newborn infants have been shown to prefer gazing at faces adults agree are attractive.

Chiqui Esteban/Globe staff

“Friends might have an argument about who’s more attractive, Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but both are going to say they’re both attractive, and that both are more attractive than Steve Buscemi,” Connor Principe, an assistant professor of psychology at Pacific University and the lead author of the twin study, said. “We know who the attractive people are and who the unattractive people are, and there’s a lot of agreement.” This is true both within and across cultures, even those presumed to have radically different standards of beauty.

In the 1990s, psychologists thought that beauty was merely facial symmetry. Today the emerging consensus is more subtle: A beautiful face, it appears, is an “average” face—one sheared of most idiosyncrasies, or what Principe calls the most “face-like face.” One theory for why this would be is that it’s because we’re able to recognize such faces a split second earlier, and we prefer images we can process faster. “Instead of saying that someone who is beautiful is ‘easy on the eyes,’ we should say that they are ‘easy on the mind,’” Principe explained in an e-mail. “Unfortunately for less attractive people, their appearances make our brains work harder.”

The human preference for attractiveness does seem to serve an evolutionary purpose. Qualities like pink cheeks and facial symmetry are real indicators of health and fertility—even more so before modern medicine and makeup—so it makes sense that we’d be drawn to them. But we tend to extrapolate wildly on those meager cues, and apply those extrapolations to a far wider group of scenarios than mate selection. The “what is beautiful is good” bias, as psychologist Karen Dion and colleagues called it in an influential 1972 paper, is an aspect of the broader “halo effect.” Since humans have limited cognitive resources, we use shortcuts, including taking something we know (Angelina is beautiful) and generalizing about something we don’t yet know (Angelina is kind and competent).

Those shared shortcuts, and our broad agreement on standards of beauty, are what give the human beauty bias its shocking social power. And that’s not just bad for the below-average; it raises the possibility that the next Abraham Lincoln or George Eliot is going to be ignored. Just as American society is now benefiting from previously untapped talents of minorities and women, it’s reasonable to expect we are losing out because we—all of us—put too much stock in handsome leaders and friends, and systematically underestimate the gifts of the plain.

***

How to fix this problem depends on what kind of problem, exactly, you think it is. A number of scholars see it as fundamentally a civil-rights issue, with the unattractive a class of people who are provably and consistently discriminated against. It’s an idea that seems poised to resonate beyond the academy: A 2004 survey conducted by an economist and a legal scholar found more people reporting that they’d been discriminated against based on their looks than on their ethnicity.

The Constitution forbids employment discrimination on the basis of things like race, sex, and religion, but only a few jurisdictions have tried to add appearance to the list, starting with the parts of appearance you can measure. The state of Michigan banned height and weight discrimination in 1977, and six municipalities, including Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, have followed suit with similar statutes. These laws haven’t led to a flood of frivolous suits, as libertarians might fear—in fact, they haven’t led to many suits at all, which suggests they aren’t doing much more than tackling the most egregious cases. (Rhode’s book reports that in Michigan, an average of just one case a year makes it to court.)

Even with remarkable agreement on who is attractive and who is not, ugliness doesn’t feel like the same kind of quality as race or sexuality. In an ideal world, descriptors like “Asian” or “gay” are neutral, but “ugly” carries a universal emotional charge. “There are no ‘unattractive’ lobbies,” Principe said. “Who is going to fight for these people? For that to really work, you have to have people who are willing to be recognized as unattractive, and that’s going to be the hardest thing.” Who’s going to lead the way in the Ugly Pride parade? It’s hard to imagine it will be easy to find volunteers.

Chiqui Esteban/Globe staff

Hamermesh, however, thinks some people might raise their hands. He points out that when people rank photographs on a 5 to 1 scale of attractiveness—the most common method in beauty research—only 1 or 2 percent end up labeled “1,” and there’s a strong consensus about who belongs at the low end of the scale. “I would bet these people already feel themselves disadvantaged, are aware that their looks disadvantage them, and will be pleased to have some protection,” he said.

Other ideas, based on traditional legal and economic remedies for unfairness, can seem a bit utopian (or Orwellian): Hamermesh has proposed “affirmative-action programs for the ugly,” or extending the Americans with Disabilities Act to include the unattractive. But without a broad public understanding of the concrete disadvantages of unattractiveness, these ideas sound to many critics like social engineering run amok.

Recognizing our beauty bias as a cognitive problem offers a different kind of traction: For one thing, it’s possible to set up evaluation methods in the workplace that ignore differences in physical beauty. The field of industrial psychology has developed a set of best practices for businesses that want to avoid discrimination in hiring, including the use of online or standardized interviews that remove an interviewer’s unreliable gut instincts from the equation. Other best practices include scoring interview answers numerically, and committing to ask every candidate the exact same set of questions, since subtle bias often appears in the form of extra follow-up questions. (Of course, shifting the hiring process online isn’t foolproof: A 2012 study found people said online interviewees with attractive avatars deserved higher salaries.) The more systematic approach can produce interviews that feel “less like a conversation and more like a test,” said Tara Behrend, lead author of the avatar study and an assistant professor of organizational sciences at George Washington University. “But that means there’s less opportunity for bias.”

***

There will be resistance, obviously, to changing the status quo to account for our bias toward beauty. A few industries have made an open case for hiring attractive employees. If customers or clients are attracted to beautiful people, they point out, then it’s perfectly rational to hire them, particularly for sales or front-office positions.

But that kind of pragmatism doesn’t hold water for many advocates. “To say that hiring salespeople who are attractive is good for business is the same argument whites made for hiring whites only during the early civil rights era,” Rhode pointed out. The law no longer allows airlines to cater to the preferences of male business travelers with all-female steward staff, for example, so why is looks-based discrimination acceptable just because customers may prefer it?

Moreover, it’s clear that we trust beauty beyond the realms in which it actually makes a difference. Beautiful people may be likelier to receive loans and receive lower interest rates, but research says they’re just as likely to default. That alone suggests there are areas where more objective kinds of evaluation would be helpful.

One means of attack is perhaps the simplest of all: There’s a chance that merely making us aware of the bias can help diffuse it, by allowing us to remind ourselves that we’re wrong if we assume that beautiful and good are one and the same. Etcoff also notes that prolonged exposure to media images skews our brain’s notion of that “average” face: In a plugged-in era in which I see Jennifer Lawrence’s face more than my own sister’s, my brain’s concept of “average” is skewed wildly far from reality. It’s up to us to put down the magazines.

Chiqui Esteban/Globe staff

Research on how to prime ourselves to overcome this bias is still in its infancy, but Principe says there are promising hints from the more robust research on racism that bad cognitive habits can be broken. A paper published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed how researchers at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison devised a “habit-breaking intervention” that included teaching subjects to recognize their own responses and adopting the stigmatized person’s perspective. The intervention drastically reduced subjects’ racial biases, even months later.

So if we’re ever going to break our addiction to beauty, perhaps the first step is to admit we have a problem. “We do ourselves a disservice by saying looks don’t matter in society,” Principe said. “We’re told it’s what’s on the inside that matters, and to never judge a book by its cover. That’s counterproductive. We need to say, Looks do matter.”

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.
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