Getting complimented on your appearance can hurt your math performance, study finds

Receiving a compliment about your appearance can lead to lower scores on a mathematics test, suggests new psychology research. The study found that Israeli students who received such a compliment displayed worse math performance compared to students who received no compliment.

The findings were recently published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.

“I came across a post that a woman had published in a Facebook group named ‘Women in Management’. She wrote about a job interview she had, where the interviewer (a man) complimented her about her eyes. She asked how it was relevant, he said it wasn’t, but she wrote that for her the interview was over after that question, her head was just somewhere else,” explained study author Rotem Kahalon of Tel Aviv University.

“This situation got me thinking about how subtle things have an impact on us, and I started wondering what kind of effects they have, and, if they are experienced the same way by both men and women.”

“After digging in the literature I found that while there is a lot of research on more blatant behaviors that affect women performance (e.g., sexist humor or sexist behavior), there is not as much research on the subtle ways,” Kahalon said. “I was mostly interested in examining the behaviors that we perceive as positive. Therefore, appearance compliments are especially interesting, as they can be experienced as positive, but they still draw the person’s attention to his/her own appearance.”

An initial study of 88 female Israeli university students found that women who wrote about past situations in which they had received compliments about their appearance tended to score slightly lower on a math test, compared to women who wrote about receiving compliments about their competence and women who didn’t write anything.

In a second experiment, the researchers examined how 73 female Israeli university and 75 male students performed on a math test after some received a compliment about their appearance from a member of the opposite sex. One group of students was told “I can see from your picture that your look is very presentable, and looking good is an advantage in the employment market” while another group received no such compliment.

Kahalon and her colleagues found that students who received the compliment tended to perform worse on the math test. This was true for both men and women.

But the compliment did significantly improve the mood of students who scored high on a measure of self-objectification.

“We, as a society, place a lot of importance on women’s appearance. Women internalize this perception and try to act accordingly, investing a lot of resources, both physical (time, money) and mental (thinking about their looks, comparing themselves to the ideal looks) in their appearance,” Kahalon told PsyPost.

“Many of our social interactions, therefore, put a lot of focus on women’s appearance, but there are situations in which this focus can be harmful. An example for this is the situation I described earlier, where the compliment, even if came with a good intention, resulted in cognitive disruption.”

“We believe it is important to raise the awareness of the public—teachers, professors, bosses and coworkers, and so forth— to the negative effects this kind of seemingly positive situations might have. In our research both men’s and women’s cognitive performance was negatively affected by the appearance compliment, but as outside of the lab women are those who usually receive appearance comments, they are probably those who are mostly affected by it.”

The psychological mechanism that links compliments about appearance to reduced math performance is unclear. But the researchers believe that self-consciousness about one’s appearance could drain cognitive resources away from other mental activities.

“Social structures are maintained in all kinds of ways, but those that are harder to change are those which seem positive, as they work under the radar and are therefore harder to recognize,” Kahalon said. “An example of this is our tendency to use positive gender stereotypes to compliment people. For example, portraying women as ‘the fairer sex’ or as warm and nurturing while men are portrayed as assertive and competent is considered positive, but this kind of behavior socializes us to distinct and separate directions, narrowing our life choices from an early age.”

“Our research adds up to previous research which tried to uncover those mechanisms and examine their effects,” she continued. “Future research is still needed to uncover the effects of further subtle mechanism that contribute to gender inequality and examine how those mechanisms can be reduced (aside from raising awareness). In addition, it is important to note that we focused only on non-intimate relationships, as appearance compliment in intimate or close relationship are different. It may be intriguing to examine their effects as well.”

“It is important to remember that the message of our study focuses on organizational contexts, such as academic or work places, and not in contexts of intimate or close relationships,” Kahalon added. “We want to arouse the public awareness to the findings that within this specific contexts, appearance compliments, even if were positively meant, might be harmful.”

The study, “‘Don’t Bother Your Pretty Little Head’: Appearance Compliments Lead to Improved Mood but Impaired Cognitive Performance“, was authored by Rotem Kahalon, Nurit Shnabel, and Julia C. Becker.