Yes, We Really Are That Shallow: Appearance Matters

December 11, 2013

In a perfect world, candidates would be judged purely on talent, ability, and background. This is not that world. Appearance matters quite a bit in job interviews, criminal sentencing, and overall assessment of character.

The first thing we notice is someone’s appearance. Are they well-groomed, or scrubby? Attractive, or not so much? Even when we’re primed to think otherwise – or believe ourselves above such shallow concerns – humans unconsciously, nearly universally, think attractive people are better in almost every measurable way. In a job interview, it’s important to be aware of and (cautiously) exploit this bias. Appearance matters, whether we like it or not.

Public Domain Image

He’s incredible at… whatever his job is.

In their landmark 1972 study, “What is Beautiful is Good” (pdf), Dion, Berscheid, and Hatfield sought to establish, once and for all, whether there was a measurable bias in favor of attractive people. They found that physically attractive people are presumed to be of better character, happier, and more successful in their chosen occupations. Further, they determined that gender assortment made little difference; ie, subjects rated attractive individuals of the same or opposite gender to be equally superior.

(Fun fact: The study’s title originates in fragment 101 of Sappho’s work, translated by HT Wharton to read, “He who is fair is good, and he who is good will soon be fair also.”)

While we can’t control our genetic endowments, we can take care to cultivate and maintain our appearance, especially when walking into a job interview. Like it or not, your interviewer’s impression of your skills, background, and character varies markedly based on your physical appearance.

Appearance Matters When It Matters Least

Especially as engineers, we prefer to think we’re above judging people based on personal appearance, physical attractiveness, or other factors irrelevant to the task at hand. Why should it matter what an engineering candidate looks like? Skills, background, and character are far more important. Sadly, organizational psychologists have known differently since the mid-20th century: appearance matters to human beings in nearly every social context… especially when it should matter least.

Uncredited Image

These two mugshots are of the same person.

Take criminal trials, for example. University of Toronto researchers ran a series of simulated jury trials in 1974, where participants judged attractive and unattractive “defendants” and made punitive recommendations. Before the trial, “jurors” were surveyed regarding their attitudes on physical attractiveness and its specific effect on criminal trials. 93% of those surveyed indicated that physical attractiveness should in no way bias jury decisions, while 79% indicated that character and previous history were valid considerations.

Even when primed with the “right” attitudes, appearance matters. Jurors were less certain of the guilt of physically attractive defendants and recommended more lenient punishments, as compared to trials of unattractive defendants.

It’s unreasonable, I think, to posit an entirely separate mechanism in job interviews for judging the character and history of a stranger, based on limited information. If we can’t completely overcome attractiveness bias in (simulated) criminal contexts, appearance must weigh heavily on judging the competence and character of job applicants.

Less is More, Too Much is Manipulative

While HR and hiring managers are unconsciously swayed by physical appearance, humans are also primed to resent manipulation via attractiveness. You must absolutely cultivate your physical appearance before walking into the interview… but too much effort will result in unconscious punishment. No one likes being manipulated.

Is bring sexy back.

Is bringing sexy back.

In 2006, Robert Baron (Department of Psychological Sciences, Purdue University) devised an experiment to determine whether there was a point of diminishing returns in our bias towards physically attractive people in job interview settings. Subjects would interview “candidates” for entry-level managerial positions, rating their suitability and character. The candidates (selected for attractiveness) would employ either physically accessible body language, perfume/cologne, or both.

Baron’s hypothesis was that, while attractiveness bias would lead to more favorable ratings for candidates pursuing one or the other strategy, candidates employing both positive nonverbal cues and perfume/cologne would be rated unfavorably. Experimentally, this was born out: subjects attributed manipulative intent to those candidates who “tried too hard” and passed them over for the position. (They were, on the other hand, more memorable.) Appearance matters, definitely, but playing that card too aggressively will not land you the job.

In non-interview contexts, manipulative behavior in regards to attractiveness is almost universally met with punishment. In one study (Nancy Ostrove and Harold Sigall, University of Maryland), researchers tested whether or not fictional criminals would be punished more harshly (pdf) if they had used their appearance to commit the crime; ie, con artists and fraudsters. Subjects were provided with pictures of attractive or unattractive criminals (a third group was issued no pictures) and told they had either committed burglary or conned their victims.

Predictably, attractive individuals who committed burglary were sentenced less harshly than others. What was interesting, however, is that attractive individuals who used their physical appearance to commit crimes were punished much more harshly. Unconsciously, subjects were both biased in favor of attractive people and defensive against those who would prey upon that bias. (The study was replicated in China with similar results.)

Credit: Victor1558Appearance Matters in Job Interviews

So, yes, appearance absolutely affects your chance of success in a job interview. As much as we romanticize the scruffy engineer with no time or attention for grooming, or praise our rationality and detachment from qualitative pitfalls, interviewers are human beings with human faults. Taking the time to tend to your physical appearance is just as important as asking the right questions.

Over-emphasizing appearance can backfire, however, so exploit this bias with caution. As with mimicry, it’s one thing to reluctantly play along with human frailties … and quite another to get caught manipulating them.

Any personal stories of your own? Let us know in the comment section.