Imagine you’ve just witnessed a traffic accident. There are two victims, one you find attractive, the other less so. Which of the two victims would you help first?Or, imagine you have to hire someone to work for your company. They both have identical qualifications and experience, but one you find attractive, the other less attractive. Who would you hire?
These are very simplified versions of experimental studies that psychologists have run, but there is a point to them. Remember in my last column I discussed how we perceive people differently based on their appearance? Well, it turns out we not only perceive them differently, we also treat attractive people more favorably than we do less attractive people.
Consider this classic study from the mid-1970s: Peter Benson and his colleagues left what appeared to be a lost completed college application form, stamped envelope and all, in a phone booth at an airport. The forms included a photograph of the supposed applicant, which was used to convey information about the applicant’s physical attractiveness (attractive or less attractive). Then they waited to see what would happen.What they found was that people who’d found the forms were more likely to mail them or take them to an airport official if the person depicted in the photo was attractive.
Now, this might sound harmless enough, but things get a bit more serious when we start talking jobs. Studies have consistently shown that attractive people get favorable treatment even before they’ve landed the job: attractive individuals are more likely to be recommended for a job, considered more qualified for a job, considered more likely to succeed at a job, and are more likely to be hired for a job.
And the bias doesn’t stop once they’ve been hired. Attractive people are also more likely to be paid more for a job, are more likely to be promoted, and less likely to be fired. All that just for looking attractive. Of course, attractiveness isn’t the only factor that determines whether someone will be hired, promoted, or fired, but that it even matters at all might surprise some people.
And what about the courtroom? It’s quite difficult to examine what happens in real courtrooms, so psychologists tend to rely on mock jurors deliberating on mock cases. These studies have shown quite consistently that physically attractive defendants are less likely to be perceived as guilty when they’ve been charged with a crime. Even when they are found guilty, attractive defendants receive more lenient sentences and have lower bails and fines imposed on them.
The attractiveness-leniency effect is even more pronounced in cases of sexual harassment and assault. Some studies have shown that mock jurors consider sexual harassment more likely when the defendant is less attractive, or where the plaintiff is more attractive. In rape trials, attractive defendants are sentenced more leniently than less attractive defendants, and defendants accused of raping an unattractive victim are less likely to be perceived as guilty than those accused of raping an attractive victim.