Why attractive people are dangerous

Doing harm when you think you’re doing good – part 1

It’s a sad fact, but attractive people are more persuasive than the rest of us1. In elections, attractive candidates seem to receive far more votes2. Attractive people even get paid more for doing the same work3. This influence seems to be subconscious. We don’t think beauty affects these decisions, but it does.

One day, you magnificent beast, you interview for an important job at the World Bank. The other applicant just isn’t in your league, not that you’d notice that. You’re not shallow. Anyhow, you go on to get the job. You don’t know it, but it turns out that the other applicant was a bit more qualified than you, but your appearance swung it for you. Your looks, however, are irrelevant to your skill in the job (you’re allocating funds to development programs, not modelling on the catwalk).

Several years go by. You do a lot of good work, which helps millions of people. Everyone is pleased.

Should they be?

If you hadn’t interviewed, and gotten the job as a result of your stunning looks, then the other person would have got it instead. And they would have been slightly better at it than you. They would have done more research, allowing the World Bank’s money to be spent more effectively. In fact, if the funds you allocate affect millions of people, and you do it just a little worse, then your true impact might easily have been to harm thousands of people. Oops.

So, attractive people, be careful. If you’re going to risk getting a job, try to get one where your natural advantages make you better at it. Everyone else, be suspicious. Attractive people can be dangerous.

  1. For instance, more attractive people are assigned more favorable personality traits. For a review of the evidence, see this meta-study: Eagly, Alice H.; Ashmore, Richard D.; Makhijani, Mona G.; Longo, Laura C. “What is beautiful is good, but…: A meta-analytic review of research on the physical attractiveness stereotype.”
    Psychological Bulletin, Vol 110(1), Jul 1991, 109-128. 
  2. MG Efran, EWJ Patterson, ”The Politics of Appearance”, Unpublished manuscript, University of Toronto, 1976.
    In this study of Canadian federal elections, attractive candidates received more than two and half time as many votes as unattractive ones. 73% of voters completely denied that their decision had been influenced by attractiveness. 
  3. This seminal study found that attractive people (in the same types of jobs, and of similar age) are paid 12-14% more than unattractive co-workers.
    Daniel S. Hamermesh, Jeff E. Biddle, “Beauty and the Labor Market”
    American Economic Review, vol 84, Dec. 1994, pp 1174-1194