Survival of the prettiest: The mysterious power of attractive people

From picking mates to choosing politicians, new research says society's bias toward attractiveness has ugly results

(Photo illustration by Levi Nicholson and Richard Redditt)

As the owner of a boutique modelling agency in Vancouver, Liz Bell has to be careful about the dazzling women and men she chooses to represent. Looks are paramount, she concedes, but in an industry requiring poise, tenacity and punctuality, character is important, too. “Once you’re in the business, everybody’s beautiful,” she says. “You have to have qualities like gratitude and humility and trustworthiness. If you don’t, the clients will forget about you pretty fast.” So, after sifting out the visual gems from the scores of portfolios she receives each month, Bell interviews applicants and their parents at her Coal Harbour offices, listening and watching for warning signs.

Some are obvious. “If it’s all about them and they don’t listen, then it’s never going to work,” says Bell, who counts Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Bock among her clients. “They have to be malleable and open to change.” But beauty has a persuasive power all its own, and there have been times when even Bell succumbed to a striking face and exquisitely proportioned physique, shoving aside doubts she later realized she should have heeded. “There’s an instinct that tells you this person is obviously opportunistic and is going to use you. I’ve kicked myself many times, thinking I should have just listened to my instinct.”

Such experiences have made Bell a lay authority on an enigma scientists have been unwrapping for the past half-century. For millennia, philosophers and poets have marvelled at the mysterious power attractive people wield over us. Only in the 1960s, though, did psychological research reveal the sad truth: basically, we persuade ourselves of their greatness, projecting virtues onto the beautiful without the slightest knowledge of whether they possess them. Study after study has since shown we assume them to be smarter, kinder, more generous and more trustworthy than their less comely counterparts—even when we have nothing more to go on than pictures of their faces. This tendency, referred to as the “what’s beautiful is good” stereotype, affects men and women; adults and children; people of every race, religion and ethnicity. It applies whether the target of our gaze is a potential mate or a prospective head of government.


To evolutionary biologists, these snap judgments make sense. Attractive people, they reason, are the big winners of natural selection. They enjoy better success finding mates. They have more children, they get better jobs and they make more money than plain-looking folk. Their pleasing appearance is thought to signify good physical and mental health, so experts believe our desire to be close to them, or have them lead us, may be rooted in our primal instinct to preserve the species.

But as the evidence mounts that we’re hard-wired to believe the beautiful are morally superior, a harder question comes to the fore: Is such faith justified? Are the piercing eyes and glossy mane of, say, Justin Trudeau any more indicative of virtue than the shiny forehead and middle-age drift of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair? Are attractive people more honest in business and more loyal in marriage than plain people? On these questions, researchers are just starting to deliver answers. And the early returns are disconcerting. U.S. researchers have found handsome men are more disposed to infidelity than less attractive ones. An ongoing series of Japanese studies has concluded that attractive young males are relatively disinclined to co-operate with others or to share money, and while good-looking females come off better, Israeli psychologists have found they tend to be more socially conformist and self-promoting than observers presume them to be.

New Canadian research, meanwhile, is diving deep into how beauty influences politics, finding that good-looking politicians of both sexes enjoy a distinct advantage when wooing uninformed voters—a result they fear unscrupulous campaign operatives will use in the future, favouring attractive candidates over good ones, or limiting the amount of useful information available to voters.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau attend a panel discussion in Ottawa on March 25, 2014. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Not all of this comes as a shock. Surely, good-looking men have more opportunity to cheat. And who hasn’t met a narcissistic beauty? But it’s disturbing to think our unconscious minds actively blind us to truth, influencing decisions that shape everything from our marriages to our governments. “It carries over from the playground into schools, into our jobs,” says Gordon Patzer, a business professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago and author of several books on the impact of physical beauty. “Physically attractive individuals are overwhelmingly persuasive.” The implications, Patzer adds, reverberate through our personal and professional relationships because we hold the beautiful among us to high standards, demanding more from them, and punishing them when they fail to deliver. “Our idea is they’re fooling us, when really we’re fooling ourselves,” he says. “Either way, we don’t take pleasantly to being fooled.”

You might wonder how something as subjective as physical appearance can lend itself to scientific inquiry. Beauty, after all, lies in the eye of the beholder—or so Plato taught us. But even he must have noticed that the beholders have remarkably similar tastes: symmetry of facial and body structure; complementary features like full hair and smooth skin; hormonal indicators such as square jawlines on men and smaller chins on women. What’s more, agreement on what is beautiful is consistent within—and often between—nationalities and ethnic groups. This makes it surprisingly easy to design experiments on physical attractiveness.


Most begin with a panel of randomly selected judges, who rate the attractiveness of the subjects, or photos of them. Researchers then categorize the subjects based on their relative attractiveness, and use those sets to perform experiments. They might compare how they act in games of trust. Or they might observe how others judge attractive, versus unattractive, people. Technology plays a bigger and bigger role. A few years ago, neuroscientists at Duke University wired 22 college-aged women to MRI brain scanners, showing each photos of male faces of varying attractiveness, followed by written blurbs about the moral behaviour of the men they had just viewed. Some of the written information was positive (“he saved his sister from drowning”); some not so much (“he raped a little girl”). The researchers then watched to see what parts of the women’s brains lit up as they took in the information. In doing so, they may have pinpointed the physical source of the beautiful-is-good stereotype.

It’s a section of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex—centre of the head, right between the eyes. In the Duke experiments, it surged with neural activity, not only when the women viewed the faces of attractive men, but also when they viewed the positive statements. To the researchers, this suggested overlap in what are supposed to be two distinct functions—judging attractiveness and assessing moral goodness.

So, essentially, we appear to be confused, possibly to our own detriment. If our responses to dishy humans occur in some instantaneous jumble of subconscious neural activity, how are we to protect ourselves from the handsome devils and femmes fatales of this world? We’re not, say biologists, because evolution isn’t about right and wrong. At bottom, says Randy Thornhill, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of New Mexico (UNM), it’s about prosaic things like who’s most resistant to disease, or who will sire the healthiest children. “We’re very selective about what we pull into consciousness,” says Thornhill, who has studied the propensity of physically attractive people to cheat on their mates. “Attractiveness judgments are made very, very quickly. These are not rational processes. We’re looking for markers of genetic quality.”

If Thornhill’s research is any guide, this neurological bias toward the fittest has its downsides. In the late 1990s, he and UNM psychologist Steven Gangestad performed a study that found attractive men cheated on their spouses more than unattractive ones (in addition to facial attractiveness, the team used body symmetry as an attractiveness indicator, measuring participants’ ears, elbows, hands, feet and other body parts). Among 203 heterosexual college-aged men who were in permanent relationships, the good-looking ones averaged 2.67 more “extra-pair couplings” than their less handsome counterparts; facial attractiveness alone accounted for 2.52 more encounters, on average, outside their permanent relationships.

No such link between appearance and infidelity surfaced among attractive females. Thornhill believes that’s because women are disposed to use beauty to maximize their selection of possible mates, seeking quality rather than quantity when it comes to sexual encounters. This discrepancy lends poignancy to a thread that broke out a few years later on the online dating site PlentyOfFish. “Really, really hot guys,” wondered a user who went by GirlOnline, “do you think they can be trusted?” Others on the site rushed to reassure her, sharing platitudes about trust building over time, and how what’s inside counting most. But the lovelorn poster was having none of it. “Yes, some [attractive] people don’t know they’re good-looking,” she wrote. “But the majority of them do. So these people have a WAY higher chance of doing something they shouldn’t be if they’re with someone.”


We may accept nature’s capacity to override our reason when it comes to mating—this is, after all, sex we’re talking about. Its role in other arenas is more worrisome. A Japanese study published in 2014, for example, concluded attractive young men are less likely, relative to women, older men or less-good-looking men, to co-operate for shared financial benefit. The researchers tested participants with one-on-one money-exchange games, in which mutual generosity could yield modest reward for both partners, yet required trust to benefit both parties. Each participant was given $20 and told any amount of that money they gave to their partner—whom they could not see and had never met—would be doubled. A selfish participant could make as much as $60, keeping the initial $20 and receiving an additional $40 if their partner happened to be generous. A luckless donor could lose all of his or her initial $20 and get nothing back.

The paper, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, found that young, attractive men skewed heavily to the selfish side, receiving more money on average and giving back less. Based on findings of previous studies, the researchers ventured that confidence in their appearance, or their capacity to obtain resources, enabled attractive young men to share less and take greater risks. In other words, they press their evolutionary advantage.

Sometimes there’s more at stake than a fistful of dollars. Since the beautiful-is-good principle came to light, for instance, political scientists have been trying to tease apart the influence of attractiveness from the countless other inputs to voting decisions, like party platforms and candidates’ experience. The impact on election outcomes varies from contest to contest. But it seems clear the beautiful-is-good stereotype operates on voters as surely as it does on lovers and money-givers.

Our own Prime Minister may be a case in point. In February 2014, 16 months before the start of the recent election campaign, public opinion polls in Canada took a curious turn. For the first time, Justin Trudeau’s leadership numbers surpassed those of then-prime minister Stephen Harper, with 38 per cent of respondents telling Ipsos Reid that Trudeau was the leader they trusted most, versus 31 per cent weighing in for Harper and 30 per cent for Tom Mulcair. This despite Trudeau’s lack of experience in power at any level and sustained Conservative attacks portraying him as feckless and self-absorbed. During the following year, his leadership positives never appreciably declined.

Sensing trouble, the Tories tried to turn Trudeau’s looks into a negative (“Nice hair, though” is a line destined for attack-ad infamy). But in doing so, say observers, they drew attention to the one trait capable of smoothing over voters’ uncertainty about the man’s judgment. His pleasing physical presentation became his most noticeable feature, filling the conversation void left by the absence of reliable information about his trustworthiness. On Oct. 19, he and the Liberals won 184 of the 338 seats in the Commons. Shortly after, he and his wife appeared on the pages of Vogue magazine.


Trudeau’s looks advantage bears out research suggesting the beautiful-is-good phenomenon figures in our political decision-making more than many of us care to admit. Last March, Daniel Stockemer, a political studies professor at the University of Ottawa, published the latest in a series of studies that use images of candidates in 2008 U.S. congressional elections to gauge how physical attraction affects voting preferences. A test group of more than 2,400 Canadian participants—students from U of O and Western University in London, Ont.—were shown the candidates’ photos without any indicator of the person’s name, party affiliation or qualifications. On average, these “voters” cast 34.8 per cent more ballots in favour of attractive candidates than unattractive ones; 21 per cent more for candidates whose appearances had been rated as neutral. In a second trial, mock voters were given additional information about the political experience and competence of candidates, including brief career histories. In these cases, appearance played no discernible role in vote choices. Competency trumped good looks.

To Stockemer, the implication is clear: looks hold the greatest sway over those euphemistically called “low-information voters.” And this worries him, given the decline in political engagement throughout the democratic world. “If the parties realize the potential here, they might try to use it,” he says, noting that organizers could seek out prettier candidates, regardless of qualifications, to draw uninformed voters. How the beauty premium might affect contests at the leadership level is less clear, Stockemer says. But he has little doubt that Trudeau’s winsome appearance played a part in making him Canada’s 23rd prime minister. “How else can you explain his popularity ratings climbing so quickly?” he says. “He debated okay, but he wasn’t great. Yet all of these positive feelings developed, because he seemed like a nice, good-looking guy you could trust.”

The question is whether that trust is well-placed. Trudeau’s approval ratings remain sky-high. But four months into his mandate, he’s under-delivered on a couple of major promises. The Liberals didn’t come close to delivering on their promise to patriate 25,000 refugees by Jan. 1. The $10-billion deficit they projected will hit $18 billion before the government does any new spending. If he fails to deliver on his message of hope or allows a serious breach of national security, his looks won’t do him much good.

U.S. Senator John Edwards (D-NC), and former vice-presidential candidate, arrives with his wife, Elizabeth at the 2004 Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, December 5, 2004. (Shaun Heasley/Reuters)

For comely spouses and business professionals, as surely as for appealing politicians, here lies the risk. While there’s little empirical information to confirm people disproportionately punish attractive people for their failures, we clearly relish them as targets. Tony Blair was arguably the most pleasant-looking British prime minister in living memory. Today, he’s one the most reviled public figures in the U.K., as many Brits have never forgiven him for bringing the country into the Iraq war based on flawed intelligence. John Edwards, a blue-eyed former U.S. senator, was twice mooted as a presidential candidate. But he never recovered from unproven allegations of a campaign funding violation and revelations he’d fathered a child out of wedlock.

The punitive sentiment registers more plainly at the private level. Variations on the aforementioned money-exchange experiment found participants of both sexes returned less money to attractive givers they felt had been ungenerous than they did to unattractive givers. “When you look at attractive people, your expectations go way up,” says Rick Wilson, the Rice University political scientist who led the study. “When they send less than you expect, you think, ‘Geez, what a snob,’ and you refuse to reward them with as much. We called this a beauty penalty.”


Wilson, who conducted his study on students at three U.S. universities, believes this phenomenon could extend to the political world. But it’s just one example of the suite of trust issues the beautiful-is-good stereotype raises. While past research shows visually appealing job candidates enjoy a clear advantage over equally qualified but less attractive rivals, it also suggests the lookers wind up paying a price after winning their positions. “We expect greater things from these people than we do from others,” notes Patzer. “When they don’t live up to our hopes, we take it out on them.” Women, in particular, have a paradoxical relationship with their best-looking peers: a U.S. study published in 1984 suggests that the better-looking a woman is, the more egocentric other females perceive her to be, even though they find her to be socially desirable. Research done five years ago in Israel found attractive women—though assumed by female peers to be independent and concerned for others—reported their own values to be socially conformist and self-promoting.

The good news is we’re learning more about those tensions and possible ways to manage them. Patzer, for one, wonders whether we should be telling children, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” when the kids will encounter a different reality at school. Accordingly, he’s begun canvassing parents about how they navigate these realities, hoping to learn what various adults—attractive or unattractive; gay or straight; white or visible minority—tell their youngsters about appearance. As Liz Bell’s experience as a modelling agent shows, they should probably suggest caution. If looks can beguile a woman who judges them for a living, then what’s on the outside matters more than we care to admit.