Wednesday, July 23, 2014

People who think they're attractive tend to be more comfortable with economic inequality

These guys are pretty handsome. Does that mean they really like inequality? Getty Images

Being attractive already means you're more likely to get hired and to get a higher salary. And as Tina Fey and Jon Hamm definitively proved, it can mean you exist in a bubble of obliviousness. It also can cause you to support socioeconomic inequality, according to a new study.

A new study finds that people who perceive themselves as attractive also perceive their social class as higher. They also are more likely to believe that individual characteristics like hard work and abilities are contributing to growing economic inequality than outside forces, like discrimination. Here's a rundown of what the researchers found:

The Premise

Observing that Americans spend big on their looks in both good times and lean times, Dr. Margaret Neale, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and Peter Belmi, a graduate student in organizational behavior, write that trying to be pretty may be more than a cultural obsession.

Societal beauty standards tend to favor groups that are wealthier, they note. In societies where food is scarce, having a little more meat on your bones is considered more attractive. Meanwhile, societies where food is plentiful tend to consider skinnier people the attractive ones. Likewise, looks can signal a person's status: paler skin was once a sign not only of beauty but of higher social class, whereas to work outdoors quite literally made a person a "redneck" and signified lower status, they write.

Neale and Belmi write that they wanted to test to what degree people apply these ideas to themselves.

How they tested it

Belmi and Neale's study in fact consists of five smaller studies, each one testing a different facet of how perceived attractiveness affected participants' views of societal status.

Those studies involved a number of tests; participants rated their attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 7, and in some cases, they were also primed to consider themselves attractive (or not) by going through a writing exercise in which they recounted a time when they felt especially attractive or unattractive. That exercise helped the researchers to establish causality, showing that changes in perceived attractiveness could alter their other views.

After establishing perceived attractiveness, the authors also tested individuals on various other measures. In one study, they asked about whether people agreed or disagreed with various statements about group dominance in society: "Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups" and "Lower wages for women and ethnic minorities simply reflect lower education and skill level," for example. Another asked them how they feel about inequality, with statements like "Some people are just more deserving than others." Participants were also were asked about their self esteem, as well as how they perceive their own power and status.

What they found

Participants who perceive themselves as attractive also tend to not only believe they are of higher social status but also to believe in group dominance — that some groups are just inferior. They also were more likely to believe in ideas that legitimized their status, like the idea that all Americans have equal shots at making it to the top.

In additional, the researchers winnowed the causal factors down: power, self-esteem, and perceived status didn't account for the way people's perceived attractiveness changed their views or actions. Perceived attractiveness was the only tested trait that did. In other words, thinking you've got it going on — as opposed to feeling influential, all-around pretty great, or respected — can really shift how you look at inequality.

People who thought they were more attractive also tended to think that America's steadily growing inequality came about because of individual characteristics, like talent and hard work. People who thought they were uglier, meanwhile, thought outside factors — discrimination, political power — had more to do with inequality.

That also shaped how people reacted to inequality; given the opportunity to donate to the Occupy Movement, people who thought of themselves as better-looking donated less, while people who perceived themselves as less attractive donated more.

It also made them more likely to be ok with inequality. People who perceived themselves as more attractive were more likely to agree with statements like, "It is not a problem if some people have more of a chance in life than others."

What it means

It suggests that we're not just vain. Though Americans spend more than $200 billion on looking good per year, the results suggest that it's not because we want to look hot for hotness' sake. Rather, it could also have something to do with the fact that we feel we are higher on the ladder, and even more deserving of being high on that ladder, if we think we are attractive.

But it's also important to note one thing here: these results are only about how people perceive their own attractiveness, not how others perceive their attractiveness. That suggests simply meeting societal standards of beauty — symmetry, awesome cheekbones, nice teeth, being devoid of extra pounds — isn't enough to change your political or economic views.

So being attractive but also being insecure wouldn't necessarily mean a person also is opposed to equality. Likewise, being homely but thinking one has got it going on could make a person more accepting of growing inequality.

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