09/25/2003 - Articles

Beauty in Everyday Life

By: Fathali M. Moghaddam, PhD


This is the last part of a four-part series on the relationship between health, beauty, and senior life. In this final discussion, we explore: Beauty in Everyday Life.

"Baby Matthew loves to look at Jackie. His eyes followed her around the room wherever she moved this morning."

"Everybody loves to look at Jackie, she's so beautiful and magnetic, even at 73."

"Do you really think babies can tell who is beautiful? Matthew is only four months old."

"Of course they can, that's just something babies are born with."

"Well, it seems so unfair that even babies prefer the beautiful."

"I suppose it is unfair, but that's life."

This conservation between two women reminded me of how I always feel when I read about research on perceived attractiveness. There is a tendency to end up feeling that this is an unfair world. Attractive people get treated better in so many different ways.

For example, attractive people receive higher evaluations than others, and people are more willing to help them. Attractive people even receive a higher salary for the same work. How do we know all this? The main way researchers study the influence of attractiveness on the behavior of others is to set up two or more conditions in which the only factor that varies is the level of attractiveness of a target being evaluated or rated in some way. The following are some examples of typical research scenarios.

Imagine the following:

  • Scenario 1: Researchers arrange for a car to 'break down' by the side of a busy road. The driver is standing outside the car, waving a hand as a signal that she needs help. In one condition the woman in need of help is very attractive; in a second condition she is less attractive. Thus, the same car and the same road are used at the same time of day, but the attractiveness of the person seeking help is varied.

    The research question is: how many people will help the more attractive person in need of help, compared to the less attractive person?

  • Scenario 2: Researchers send two sets of job applications from 'Jane Smith' with attached resume to various different companies that have advertised job openings. The two sets of applications are identical except for one important detail. Half of the applications include a picture showing Jane Smith to be very attractive, and the other half includes a picture showing Jane Smith to be less attractive.

    The research question is: how many job interview offers will the more attractive applicant receive, compared to the less attractive applicant?

The results of research using these kinds of strategies have shown that attractive individuals receive more positive feedback. A typical pattern of results would be that in scenario 1 , above, the more attractive person would receive more offers of help from passing motorists; in scenario 2 , above, the more attractive applicant would receive more job interviews from prospective employees. This preference for the more attractive person begins with the very young. Infants as young as two months old spend more time staring at more attractive faces than less attractive ones, implying that they find attractive faces more pleasing. Children in kindergarten and elementary school show a bias in favor of the more attractive children in their school.

How about adults, do they treat children any differently based on attractiveness? The answer is a definitive yes! Even as newborn infants in hospital, those who are more attractive receive more attention. This favored treatment may lead more attractive children to become more confident and sociable as they grow up.

More attractive individuals also benefit from the so-called halo effect , which means that a few outstanding characteristics influence the general impression one has of a person. More attractive individuals are assumed to have all kinds of other positive qualities (in addition to being thought of as sexier), such as having more successful marriages and living more fulfilling lives.

Another way to consider the 'benefits' of attractiveness is to bring to mind the enormous and growing international beauty industry. Why do women, and increasingly men, invest so much time, effort, and money into making themselves more attractive? Part of the answer is that experience teaches people that attractiveness is an asset. But we need to take the next step and ask: why should attractiveness be an asset? The research evidence suggests that our evolutionary experiences have programmed us to respond positively to attractiveness, even as young infants. Why is this? What is the adaptive benefit of this behavior? The answer, I suggest, is the link between beauty and health.

From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense that we should have developed a preference for sexual partners who are healthy rather than unhealthy. This preference for healthy partners protects our own health and increases the chances of our having healthy offspring. In terms of the group as a whole, it means that healthier individuals are more popular and more likely to have offspring, so that this trend also improves the survival chances of the group. In essence, then, attractiveness is preferred because it is associated with health.

But the relationship between beauty and health is two-way: just as beauty signals health, health also signals beauty. It is very helpful to know that by improving health, we are also improving our beauty. This is a point that receives too little attention in modern culture.

Health and Beauty in Modern Culture

The modern mass media consistently communicates to us that we should be concerned with how we look. Children receive this message very early, as is clear from TV and magazine advertising targeting the 'early teens'. Girls used to be the main target, but more and more the marketing is equally targeted at both sexes as boys also become 'look conscious' consumers. It is now just as likely that a boy will experiment with gel and color on his hair as it is for a girl. More and more detailed information is reaching teenagers about how they should look, and the products that will help them achieve the desired look.

But relatively little information is provided to young people about health issues and how to maintain a healthy life-style - despite the evidence showing that there are growing problems with the eating habits of young people today. The health information that is provided tends to be communicated in relatively 'dry' and unpalatable school classes, rather than in the exciting format used to convey beauty industry information. This trend is the same for seniors: information about the beauty industry is packaged to be exciting and sexy, but information about health issues tends to be placed in sterile boxes. This is not doing justice to the power and advantages of good health, because good health signals beauty. Good health means magnetism and being sexy. We need to package health messages and jazz them up in the same way that the beauty industry packages its products.


Created on: 09/12/2003
Reviewed on: 09/25/2003

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