Rice study shows beauty has its drawbacks after all

BY B.J. ALMOND Rice News Staff

Physical attractiveness can make you an attractive job candidate as well — unless you’re a female applying for a job in which appearance is not important.

“This is commonly referred to as the ‘beauty is beastly’ effect,” said Ken Podratz, a graduate student in psychology who conducted research on the topic for his master’s thesis. “For many years this effect has been cited in research literature about bias related to physical attractiveness, but it has rarely been replicated.”

The traditional perception of people based on physical appearance has been that “what is beautiful is good,” Podratz said.

“Individuals perceived as physically attractive are also initially assumed to possess a full gamut of positive human traits that the unattractive are assumed to lack.”

While research indicates that hiring decisions and job-performance assessments seem to be biased in favor of applicants and employees who are physically attractive, that advantage is lost when attractive women apply for positions that are stereotypically held by men, such as managers. The success of females who attain high-level positions is likely to be attributed to luck if the woman is attractive, but to ability if she is unattractive.

For his graduate studies, Podratz set out to replicate these findings while also correcting for key flaws in the previous research.

“One of the problems in the earlier studies is that they used only two to four photos for evaluation of physical attractiveness,” he said.

Usually this consisted of two pictures of each sex, one attractive and one unattractive. Study participants were asked which people they would hire.

“This was like making generalizations about everyone based on two research subjects,” Podratz explained.

The previous studies also were based on a small number of jobs.

Podratz used photos of 204 people for his study, half males and half females. The photos were determined to be either “attractive,” “average” or “unattractive” after being screened by eight research participants. He also used a list of 33 jobs, ranging from tow-truck driver to director of finance.

More than 60 research participants ranked each job for its level of status, its association with a particular sex and the importance of appearance to the job.

With these research tools in hand, Podratz asked 66 undergraduate students to look at each picture and rate that person’s suitability for employment for four randomly chosen jobs from the list.

As expected, the men whose photo had been categorized as attractive were more likely to be rated as suitable for hire than the others, and the average-looking also had an advantage over the unattractive.

The “beauty is beastly” effect occurred with mixed results. Female raters, but not male raters, were less likely to hire attractive women for jobs that were viewed as more male-oriented. But for jobs in which physical appearance was rated low in importance, both male and female raters were less likely to label attractive women as suitable for hire.

“The importance of appearance associated with a job may be a better predictor of ‘beauty is beastly’ effects than a job’s sex-type,” Podratz concluded. “The extent to which the importance of appearance associated with a job is low and the extent to which a job is male sex-typed both appear to predict the occurrence of ‘beauty is beastly’ effects for women.” Podratz noted that the implications of such research findings for practice are not clear. For jobs in which appearance is rated important, such as those involving sales or face-to-face contact, physical attractiveness could conceivably affect a business’s bottom line. Forcing companies to adopt policies that have an adverse effect on their bottom line could be viewed as unfair, but allowing them to discriminate against individuals based on appearance could be seen as socially unjust, Podratz said.

“Clearly, there is an ethical dilemma concerning where to draw the line limiting the extent to which organizations can utilize employment criteria that are unfair to certain individuals,” he said.

Podratz’s adviser for his master’s thesis was Robert Dipboye, professor of psychology and management.

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