Physical beauty is often associated with positive traits such as intelligence and competence, a psychological phenomenon known as the “beauty-is-good” effect. But new research indicates people often assume those who are highly attractive are also high in vanity and, consequently, they are perceived as not particularly moral. The findings have recently been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“Few tasks are as important as judging others’ moral characters (who is good and who is bad) in our social lives,” said study author Da Eun Han, a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and member of the Morality and Social Cognition Lab. “However, human moral evaluation is often biased by many factors, which I assumed to include physical attractiveness.”
“While it has been widely documented that physically attractive people are believed to be more competent, sociable, and intelligent (so-called beautiful-is-good effect), it has not been clearly answered whether this bias also extends to moral evaluation. I wanted to answer this question because if attractiveness indeed affects moral judgments, it would have a wide impact on our day-to-day social interactions and even legal judgments. ”
In a series of four studies, which included 1,464 adults, the researchers found that physical attractiveness was both directly and indirectly linked to perceptions of reduced morality.
Individuals who were described as highly attractive were more likely to be perceived as vain and self-absorbed. People perceived to be high in vanity, in turn, were seen as higher in general immorality and lower in moral concern. Importantly, the researchers found that the negative effect of attractiveness on moral judgments was greatly reduced when attractive individuals were described as being low in vanity.
Han and her colleague conducted three more studies, with 1,305 adults in total, which replicated the observed effects using photos of highly and moderately attractive faces. The researchers also found evidence that physical attractiveness was associated with perceptions of sociability, and increased sociability was associated with greater morality. Individuals described as “almost invariably friendly” and “easygoing and fun to be around” tended to be viewed as more moral than individuals described as “fairly standoffish” and “introverted.”
In other words, sociability and vanity exerted opposing influences on moral judgments. The new findings might explain why previous research has found mixed results when examining the link between physical attractiveness and perceived morality.
“While the beautiful seem good in most ways (seem competent, sociable, intelligent, etc.), they may not always seem morally good,” han told PsyPost. “If your attractiveness hints at vanity, the more attractive you are, others will believe you are less moral. On the other hand, if you seem like a sociable person, then your attractiveness will help you seem more moral.”
Two additional studies, which used implicit association tests, found that increasing the salience of vanity attenuated the cognitive link between attractiveness- and morality-related words. Han and her colleague found “that people more closely associate attractiveness-related words with words related to morality (vs. immorality).” But their studies indicated that “simply introducing the concept of vanity disrupted this association.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“Since this is the very first study dissecting the divergent influence of attractiveness on moral judgments, future studies should discover under which particular circumstances, vanity or sociability become salient as a function of attractiveness,” Han explained.
“While some people may exploit these findings to make their beauty suggest sociability and wear a halo of attractiveness, the most important thing to bear in mind is that attractiveness could unwittingly bias our judgments and decisions.”
The study, “Beautiful seems good, but perhaps not in every way: Linking attractiveness to moral evaluation through perceived vanity“, was authored by Da Eun Han and Sean M. Laurent.