A series of four experiments provides evidence that people’s faces tend to be rated as more physically attractive when those people are perceived as honest. This was independent of gender or clothing of the person. The faces of males, but not females, perceived as aggressive received lower attractiveness ratings. The study was published in PLOS One.
The attractiveness of one’s face is very important in social life. Research has shown that people tend to see attractive individuals as possessing many positive traits. This effect is known as the “what is good is beautiful effect.” People tend to be more tolerant of unethical behaviors from attractive individuals.
Attractive individuals tend to be favored in dating, when they ask for help, in voting, but also in college admission processes. They get more fringe benefits at work, have improved likelihood of promotion and career success. Overall, physical attractiveness influences a wide range of human behaviors. Studies have shown that even virtual avatars have the same effect.
However, perceptions of facial attractiveness are not only based on permanent physical features. Studies have identified many factors that influence these perceptions. These include hairstyle, facial expressions, odor, bowing, observer’s mood, alcohol consumption, familiarity, and many others.
Studies have shown that the personality of the target influences the rated facial attractiveness. This was also the case with verbal descriptions. Favorable descriptions (e.g., generous, friendly) resulted in higher physical attractiveness ratings, while unfavorable descriptions of personality (selfish, unfriendly) resulted in lower attractiveness ratings.
The authors of this study wanted to replicate some of the previous findings in Japanese people. They aimed to verify whether there is really an “honesty premium” i.e., honest people being perceived as more attractive. The other aim was to test the effects of other personality traits — namely creativity and aggressiveness.
“I teach psychology at a university and find that students are very interested in facial attractiveness,” explained Ryosuke Niimi, an associate professor at Niigata University and the corresponding author of the new study.
“Every year I have students in the psychology major who want to investigate which facial features determine attractiveness. In fact, much of the research on facial attractiveness has focused on physical features such as the size of facial parts and facial symmetry. However, this strong focus on physical features may simply reflect the researchers’ (as well as the students’) naive belief that facial attractiveness is literally physical.”
“Such a situation in which only physical features are studied and reported as a source of facial attractiveness may even reinforce our lookism and other appearance-related stereotypes. So I searched the literature on the effect of non-physical factors on facial attractiveness. Then I found a 2006 study that reported the ‘honesty premium’ effect, which I thought was interesting.”
In the first experiment, 65 Japanese undergraduate students rated eight grayscale face images (4 male, 4 female, all East Asians) with neutral or slightly smiling expressions. The researchers prepared 4 versions of the target descriptions – describing a male figure as honest, describing a male figure as dishonest and the same two combinations for female figures (honest and dishonest).
The descriptions of the target person consisted of four sentences about their intelligence, three about their independence, and two about their honesty. The seven sentences about intelligence and independence were the same for all targets and were not analyzed.
In the second experiment, the researchers repeated the procedure from the first experiment, but on a larger and more age-diverse group of 480 participants recruited through crowd-works.jp. The researchers used a new set of 16 color images. The procedure was the same as in experiment 1, with differences being that participants now answered fewer rating questions and the researchers also tested for attractiveness of the shirts the people in the images were wearing.
Experiment 3 aimed to test whether creativity and aggressiveness affected the ratings. These traits were chosen because creativity is related to competence and aggressiveness to warmth. Previous studies have reported that these two traits affect overall attractiveness, but there were no studies about facial attractiveness. Participants were again undergraduate students (117 of them, 82 women).
They rated eight faces each accompanied by one of the four personality descriptions, combinations of low/high aggressiveness and low/high creativity. Each student was assigned one of the combinations of faces and descriptions. The 4th experiment aimed to examine whether attractiveness ratings were affected by moods of participants.
Results showed that both students in experiment 1 and the larger, more-diverse group in experiment 2, rated faces of persons described as honest as more attractive than when they were described as dishonest. Persons described as honest were also rated as more intelligent, more independent, less ambitious, more sociable and more likeable. This effect was found to be irrespective of participant’s gender, the gender of the person on the picture (whose face was rated), and attractiveness of clothing worn by the person in the picture (experiment 2).
Experiment 3 showed that describing the person as aggressive reduced the attractiveness of this person’s face. However, further analysis revealed that this was the case for faces of males, but not for faces of females. Describing females as aggressive did not reduce attractiveness ratings of their face. Describing the person as creative had no effect. Mood of participants was not found to be related to attractiveness ratings.
“Although it is widely believed that attractiveness is literally ‘physical,’ this is not true,” Niimi told PsyPost. “Physical features are only one of many factors that determine perceived facial attractiveness. In situations where the only information available is appearance (such as in many experiments where only facial images are presented to judges), physical features will determine attractiveness. In the real world, however, a variety of other information determines facial attractiveness.”
The study contributes to scientific understanding of psychological mechanisms underpinning attractiveness perceptions. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the effects of honesty were not obtained in the 4th experiment. Additionally, attractiveness ratings were based on single static pictures of unfamiliar individuals. This markedly differs from how attractiveness perception functions in real life situations.
“This study examined perceptions of facial attractiveness, not of a person’s overall attractiveness,” Niimi said. “For example, creativity information did not affect facial attractiveness ratings in this study, but there is a study in which creative people were rated as attractive. The extent to which each of the physical features and personality information contributes to facial attractiveness is not yet known. It probably depends on the situation.”
The study, “Good conduct makes your face attractive: The effect of personality perception on facial attractiveness judgments”, was authored by Ryosuke NiimiI and Mami Goto.