Beauty Benefits: Study Ties Social, Economic Power to Pretty Face

A pretty face may be pretty irresistible and put people in good moods, a new study shows.

The study, published recently in Emotion, had three key findings.

First, facial attractiveness was judged in a fraction of a second. The speed was so fast that participants barely knew what was happening.

Second, pretty faces were tied to positive words, like “laughter” and “happiness,” more than negative words. But unattractive faces weren’t linked to negative words.

Lastly, pretty faces seem particularly powerful. Attractive houses didn’t spark the same reactions in the study’s participants.

The researchers were Ingrid Olson, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Christy Marshuetz, PhD, of Yale University.

The Beauty Premium

“Research has demonstrated time and time again that there are tremendous social and economic benefits to being attractive,” Olson says in a news release.

“Attractive people are paid more, are judged more intelligent, and will receive more attention in most facets of life,” she continues. “This favoritism, while poorly understood, seems to be innate and cross-cultural. Studies suggest that even infants prefer pretty faces.”

Those perks have been termed the “beauty premium,” write Olson and Marshuetz. They tested the beauty bias in three experiments.

First, Olson and Marshuetz gathered yearbook photos of students with attractive and less attractive faces. None of the faces was famous.

Next, the researchers asked male and female students to rate each face’s attractiveness. The goal was to reach some agreement about which faces were or weren’t attractive.

Those steps laid the groundwork for the main tests.

Attractive or Not?

The researchers showed the most attractive and unattractive faces to another group of students. After seeing each face on a computer screen for less than a second, the students pressed computer keys to rate the face as attractive or not.

The students told the researchers they didn’t have enough time to look at the faces and were guessing when they cast their votes. Still, they were quite accurate in identifying the attractive faces.

The result suggests that “attractiveness can be assessed from very brief glimpses of visual information,” the researchers write.

What about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? “There are no definite rules to what kind of face can be called beautiful, but we chose faces of extreme -- very ugly or very pretty,” Olson says in the news release.

“Seen rapidly, viewers were able to make what amounted to an unconscious, albeit accurate, assessment of physical beauty,” she continues.

Pretty Face, Good Mood

Next, another set of students took the same test, but this time, a positive or negative word followed each face.

The students’ job: Ignore the faces, focus on the words, and press a computer key to indicate whether the word was positive or negative.

After seeing an attractive face, the students more quickly identified positive words. Unattractive faces didn’t have any effect. When attractive and unattractive houses replaced the faces, students’ word judgments weren’t affected.

In short, pretty faces were particularly influential.

“In a way, pretty faces are rewarding,” Olson says. “They make us more likely to think good thoughts. There are some underlying processes going on in the brain that prejudice us to respond to attractive people better even if we are not aware of it.”

It would be interesting to learn exactly what determined attractiveness and whether students’ sexual orientation made any difference, the researchers note.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Olson, I. Emotion, December 2005; vol 5: pp 498-502. News release, University of Pennsylvania.