The Consequences of Beauty Bias

You've heard it again and again: Don't judge a book by its cover.

But we do, constantly, and we do it to our friends, our potential mates, our politicians, our salespeople, and our future employees. Not only do beautiful people get higher paychecks, quicker promotions, and easier bank loans, but we pay more attention to them while they talk, meaning we get to know the "real them" much more quickly and accurately. Beautiful people are also more likely to have high self esteem (no surprise there), and that alone attracts all sorts of good things — just read The Secret. (No, but seriously — high self esteem can translate into workplace success.)

Although your personal preference for tall, lean swimmers might clash with your friend's obsession with buff football players, beauty is not as subjective as we make it out to be. Even across cultures, we all tend to want the same thing: feminine features on women (full lips and big eyes, please), masculine features on men (strong jawlines and broad chins, if you don't mind). And this isn't just a conspiracy by the good-looking people of the world; there's an evolutionary reason men find an hourglass shape on a woman very arousing. Physical symmetry, pink cheeks, shiny hair — these tend to signal health and fertility, attracting those looking for a mate.

It's easy to scream about "lookism," but don't be naive: We find true pleasure in experiencing things that are beautiful. That's why we'll always be a world that needs artists. Think about the music, paintings, dance, theater, novels, poetry, photography, and movies that you truly love: I'm guessing they're pretty beautiful, inspiring, striking, or moving in one way or another. (I could stand in front of this painting for hours.) It's not wrong to love beauty. It's not wrong to want to fill your life with attractive things. But our beauty bias becomes a problem when it starts to blind us to reality.

A study from Rice University found that job candidates with obvious facial blemishes, birthmarks, scars, and other facial disfigurements were more likely to be rated poorly by their interviewers. Why? The interviewers were less likely to remember the candidates' actual interview content — presumably because they were paying too much attention to their surface imperfections. And this is the type of news that makes us ruffle up self-righteously, convinced that we would never spend an entire interview staring at a large forehead pimple. But our beauty bias runs so deep — both evolutionarily and sociologically — that, pretty ones, I have some bad news: you would and you do.

Beauty is quantifiable, but it's also abstract — unlike height or weight (or gender or race), we don't have any quick, easy ways of measuring it. The state of Michigan and six municipalities have anti-discrimination statues in place about height and weight, but that's about as far as the law has stretched right now. Telling a company that they can't refuse to hire "ugly people" is just uncomfortable and problematic, as it seems to force a lot of people under an umbrella that they may be reluctant to identify with. Nobody wants to think of themselves as on the unattractive side of the spectrum, and with all the perks of being beautiful, it's not hard to see why. You can ask an employer not to discriminate against ugly people during the hiring process, but you can't stop the employer's brain from subconsciously paying more attention to the pretty candidate's conversation and qualifications.

But here's a concrete first step that everyone can take: simply realizing that beauty bias does exist. Consider the scenarios in which it may be useful and the scenarios in which it's simply discrimination. When getting to know people, remind yourself of our human tendency to pay closer attention to the cute ones. (And keep your mouth shut — it's never going to be okay to call someone unattractive.)

Companies can take further steps to combat the rampant beauty bias in office environments, such as conducting interviews online. And as many jobs become work-from-home, perhaps this problem will start to dissipate — at least in the workplace.

Would you have been less likely to click on this article if the photo was of an unattractive girl?