By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 February 2012)
Many people have experienced the strange phenomenon of the beautiful person who grows increasingly ugly as he speaks, or the homely person who develops a glow of attractiveness over the course of a conversation. Despite depressing research findings attesting to the importance of physical appearance for smoothing one’s path in day-to-day life, there is also a growing body of research indicating that personality has a profound effect on the perception of beauty. The personality effect doesn’t always show up in beauty effect findings because researchers tend to examine personality and physical appearance in separate studies. Lewandowski Jr. et al. (2007) set out to remedy this by conducting a study that looked at the ways in which the two factors interact.
The researchers had subjects look at photos of people of the opposite sex, engage in a distracting task for a while, and then come back to rate the photos again. For the second rating, subjects were provided with either negative or positive personality information about the individuals in the photos. Subjects then rated the photos for general attractiveness, as well as desirability for both romance and friendship. Interestingly, neutral (presumably average-looking) and unattractive individuals in photos received the greatest attractiveness-ratings boost with positive descriptors, though beautiful people also saw an increase in their perceived aesthetic appeal. By contrast, attractive and neutral faces saw the biggest drop in attractiveness when negative descriptors were attached to their photos, though unattractive people declined as well. Overall, the findings of this study suggest that:
- Personality is important to both genders, but more important to female raters than male raters.
- Positive personality generates a greater appearance boost for homelier people than for beautiful people.
- Negative personality is more harmful to beautiful people because it carries a bigger appearance-perception penalty for them.
The so-called Halo Effect causes many people to automatically assume that those who are good-looking have other positive qualities, such as kindness, intelligence, and generosity, but apparently this can work in the other direction as well. A person who is kind, intelligent, and generous is assumed to be more attractive, and the brain may accommodate this assumption to some degree, making a person with many good qualities appear better looking.
Prior studies have shown that people’s judgements of facial features are profoundly affected by what they believe about the individuals’ personalities. For example, 12th grade students who were asked to describe the same face gave entirely different responses based on whether the individual in the photo was identified as kind or mean. The “kind” individual was perceived as having more attractive features (fuller face, rounder chin, shorter ears, etc.) than the “mean” individual, despite the use of identical photos (Hassin & Trope, 2000).
In another study, the same photo of a witness described as having helped a rape victim or simply watched received different descriptions in each condition. The witness was described as smiling and watching in the first condition, or driving the attacker away and seeking help in the second condition. Unhelpful witnesses were perceived as having thinner lips, longer noses, and other less attractive features than their courageous and benevolent counterparts (Veenvliet & Paunonen, 2005).
Swami et al. (2010) found that the perceived attractiveness of female bodies is also influenced by personality. The researchers had men look at images of women with varying body sizes. When they provided positive information about the women’s personalities, the men found a broader range of female body types attractive. However, providing negative personality information had the opposite effect, causing the men to find fewer female body shapes attractive than a group of men who looked at photos with no descriptive information.
Those with an interest in evolutionary psychology often pay far too much attention to beauty, health, athleticism, and other physical factors, and not enough to personality. Yet, as Lewandowski Jr. et al. (2007) point out, those with bad personalities tend to make poor-quality parents. Furthermore, their children may inherit their unpleasant personality traits, and thus be less likely to attract good quality mates themselves. In other words, even a surfeit of health and beauty can fall short of what is needed for reproductive fitness.
- Hassin, R., & Trope, Y. (2000). “Facing Faces: Studies on the Cognitive Aspects of Physiognomy.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(5), pp. 837-852.
- Lewandowski, G.W.; Aron, A.; & Gee, J. (2007). “Personality Goes a Long Way: The Malleability of Opposite-Sex Physical Attractiveness.” Personal Relationships, 14(4), pp. 571-585.
- Swami, V.; Furnham, A.; Chamorro-Premuzic, T.; Akbar, K.; Gordon, N.; Harris, T.; & Tovee, M.J. (2010). “More Than Just Skin Deep? Personality Information Influences Men’s Ratings of the Attractiveness of Women’s Body Sizes.” Journal of Social Psychology, 150(6), pp. 628-647.
- Veenvliet, S.G., & Paunonen, S.V. (2005). “Person Perception Based on Rape-Victim Testimony.” Deviant Behavior, 26(3), pp. 209-227.