People support harsher or milder punishment for a person based on their attractiveness and sex

New research published in PLoS One shows that the sex and physical attractiveness of a person influences social responses to their unjust behavior.

“By presenting photos of attractive or less attractive proposers who made fair or unfair offers to recipients in a dictator game to participants acting as a third-party punisher, we found that Chinese participants in general had harsher feelings towards individuals who made unfair offers than towards those who made fair offers; however, the strength of this intention to punish the proposers was modulated by the sex and attractiveness of the proposer,” Jia Li and Xiaolin Zhou of Pekin University wrote in their study.

The researchers used the two-player “Dictator Game” to examine how physical attractiveness impacted people’s assessment of fairness and justice. In the game, one person — the dictator — is given a fixed amount of money and asked to share that reward with another person. The other person in the game must passively accept whatever amount the dictator offers.

For their experiment, Li and Zhou had participants observe a Dictator Game via a computer, and then evaluate the reasonableness of the offers and express their intention to punish the dictators. The participants only saw what the dictator looked like. The recipient in the game was anonymous.

The participants viewed one of many different scenarios in the Dictator Game. In some cases, the dictator was male, while in other cases the dictator was female. Sometimes, the dictator was attractive, while other times the dictator was less attractive. Some offers were fair, while others were clearly unfair.

Not surprisingly, the participants wanted harsher punishments for the dictators who made unfair offers. They were also generally more willing to support punishment for male than female dictators.

The researchers found that the physical attractiveness of the dictator did not influence how reasonable the participants thought the offer was. However, physical attractiveness did influence to what extent the participants wanted to punish the dictators.

This link between physical attractiveness and willingness to punish was dependent upon both the participant’s and the dictator’s sex. Participants supported greater punishments for attractive dictators of the same-sex, but they were less willing punish attractive dictators of the opposite-sex. Female participants were particularly less tolerant of the unattractive opposite-sex dictators.

“Regarding people who are not attractive, same-sex people might at least have the benefit of similarity (i.e., people tend to feel more comfortable being around same-sex individuals who are not threatening), whereas opposite-sex individuals who are not attractive elicit no positive reward for the perceiver (i.e., in terms of evolutionary psychology, they would be neither interesting as a potential mate nor would they be likely to become a friend, as most friendships are among people of the same gender),” Li and Zhou explained in the study. “Given past research in evolutionary and social psychology showing that females are choosier regarding opposite-sex cohorts, it seems comprehensible that the female participants in the ultimatum game reacted comparably negative toward male proposers who were neither particularly good-looking nor appeared to be fair and generous.”