Physical attractiveness is defined as “the degree to which one’s facial image elicits favorable reactions from others.” As a society, we know that we make inferences on the basis of one’s appearance. In fact, research across various fields has linked one’s attractiveness to everything from how we are treated in the nursery at birth to courtroom decisions. Those who are physically attractive are assumed to have more desirable personality traits, better life outcomes and social skills than those who are less attractive. Individuals who are considered to be physically attractive are also believed to possess other positive attributes such as popularity and sociability.
While we can certainly understand why in some industries, attractiveness is a necessary requirement of the job, one would hope that their attractiveness would not be a relevant factor on a job interview for a standard 9-5. Unfortunately, research does not support this, and in fact, has shown that for women, physical attractiveness is a major factor in hiring decisions, performance appraisals, promotions and salary determinations.
What is interesting about this area of research, are the two theories that support it. The what is beautiful is good theory states that when a female is perceived as being physically attractive, she is also considered to possess positive job-related qualities and characteristics, such as intelligence and qualifications. Alternatively, attractiveness has also been found to work against a woman. The beauty is beastly theory states the opposite: the more physically attractive the female is, the less job-related qualities and characteristics she is believed to possess.
Some believed that these theories, both coined in the 1970’s, were slightly outdated and no longer relevant. My dissertation research challenged that assumption.
In my study, five female participants altered their appearance through the use of makeup to appear both "attractive" and "unattractive." To appear attractive, applicants were presented with a neatly groomed hairstyle, and were wearing business appropriate makeup, such as lipstick, blush and mascara. In the unattractive condition, applicants wore no makeup and had their hair tied back. In both cases, the females wore business professional attire. Each woman was then videotaped in a simulated job interview, once appearing “attractive” and once appearing “unattractive.” In both cases, the same questions were asked, and the job applicant gave the same answers. The answers were scripted so that each female was equally qualified for the job. Therefore, the only thing that varied was each female’s appearance.
A series of individuals were then asked to watch video clips of individuals applying for a job, and to answer a questionnaire rating each applicant on personality and job-related variables, such as intelligence, qualifications, responsibility, concern for others and integrity. Finally, the individuals were asked to make a hiring decision and to determine an appropriate salary level.
The results of the questionnaire were quite interesting. A pattern emerged in the relationship between the scores of attractiveness and ratings of job suitability and applicant personality: the more attractive the applicant, the more suitable for the job they were perceived as being. In other words, the more attractive applicants were rated higher than less attractive applicants on levels of job suitability, such intelligence, qualifications, responsibility and likelihood of being hired as well as on the personality characteristics of conscientiousness, concern for others and integrity. Get this - the more attractive applicants were also given a higher salary.
You may not be surprised to find that the attractive applicants were favored for this hypothetical job, particularly since in the proceeding paragraphs I gave examples of the benefits of being perceived as pretty. The more surprising finding though, is that at some point, being attractive was not helpful anymore. As perceived attractiveness increased to the higher levels, the perception of that applicant’s job suitability and personality actually started to decrease. In order words, there is a point where a person becomes too attractive, and thus, they are perceived as not possessing positive personality characteristics and not being qualified for the job. The same is true for individuals at the unattractive end of the scale. This is mind-blowing because remember – all of the applicants in this study were equally qualified for the job!
So what does this mean? There was a chance that my girlfriend was right – she may not have been perceived as being pretty enough for her job, or was seen as being too pretty, and thus, was taken out of the running. It also suggests that females in the mid-range of attractiveness are in the best position when applying for jobs, as they will be perceived the most positively.
This study shows that impressions, assumptions and biases are made based on one's attractiveness and suggests that women on the extreme ends of the attractiveness scale (both very unattractive and very attractive) may be at a real disadvantage in the workplace. More research is still needed in this area to further clarify the role that physical attractiveness plays at work. In the meantime, human resource departments should actively train and educate employees so that organizational decisions are made on the basis of merit, and not appearance.
If you are interested in reading the entire study, a full-length version (its 200 pages) of my dissertation is available here.
I used numerous references for this blogpost. There were too many to list. Contact me if you are interested in a list of articles that support this research.