How Much Do Looks Really Matter?

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As I learned in HR over this past week, apparently a heck of a lot.

We discussed prejudice and discrimination in the workplace and in company hiring policies, and we watched a video by ABC on their 20/20 series in which they conducted an interesting study on beauty. Several experiments were conducted in which two identically-qualified women and men were placed into the same situation, and the results were compared. The one difference was that one was deemed “attractive” and the other, “plain”. They were all actors playing the role, so I thought they were all decent-looking to begin with, but they had makeup artists really dramatize the differences.

  • In the first experiment, both the women pretended to have troubles with their car at similar locations and times, and stood against their car which was pulled over on the side of the road. The result: 12 people pulled over for the attractive girl, and many of them brought her gas, but only 2 people pulled over for the plain girl, and nobody offered to buy her gas.
  • In a similar experiment, they had the two women set up charity booths in a mall where they were to collect donations from shoppers. Both the women had similar traffic patterns, but when they counted the money, the attractive girl earned $90 (50% more), while the plain girl earned $60.
  • The men and the women had carefully curated resumes which reflected nearly identical skills and experiences, and were both sent in for the same job interviews with hidden cameras. The handsome male was treated very nicely and was offered the job in all of the interviews, but the plain male candidate was given very brief interviews and was either told that he’d get a call back later (which never came), or that there was no suitable role in the company at the moment. The handsome candidate was described as more competent and fit for the job, even though he didn’t say much more than “uh huh”, “I understand”, and other generic comments.
  • Same with the females: the interviewers were very gracious to the attractive one and made the job seem pleasant and relaxing (“Our company policy is a 45-minute lunch, but we are very lenient and relaxed around here”), but told the plain female that exceptional performance is expected from all workers, and that there is a very strict 45-minute lunch rule.
  • When discussing salaries, the plain female candidate was told that the starting salary was $16,000 – $18,000, but the attractive one was told “at least $18,000”. The show cited an economic study in that beauty is worth around $2,000 more in salary expectations.
  • 2 teachers were brought in as substitutes for a first grade class and asked which teacher they preferred. 27/28 students chose the attractive one.

I wish I could describe exactly how all the interactions went down, because it was truly shocking and even disturbing. When the unknowing subjects of the experiments said particularly ironic things, the class would basically groan and “oh my god” in unison.

As someone who grew up in a Western lifestyle, and felt more like the ugly duckling than the beautiful swan growing up, I am no stranger to the effects of beauty (or lack of). But I always thought that it only mattered in things such as dating and high school popularity, or in how Abercrombie and Fitch hires its sales staff. I did not expect this to occur in the most innocuous of everyday events, like simply donating to charity, or when somebody’s car breaks down on the side of the road and desperately needs help.

Even though we give A&F and similar companies a lot of backlash for their discriminatory practices, we can see that society is attracted to aesthetic appeal from a young age- just look at the 6 year old kids in the first grade class choosing the more attractive substitute teacher without a second thought. These kids aren’t intentionally trying to discriminate- I think we as human beings are wired to be gravitated towards beauty.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When I was watching the video, my heart sank. What about the 95% of us that don’t look like Victoria’s Secret models or have A&F-worthy washboard abs? We’ve been working so hard in school and life, trying to make something of ourselves, only to be possibly passed over in amazing opportunities because we don’t look like a magazine cover model? No wonder plastic surgery rates are skyrocketing globally. There is so much pressure to look perfect. Whatever happened to positive self and body image?

An environment in which it is expected that only attractive people are hired is not one that I would see myself thriving in. We discussed this in class. I value diversity and acceptance, and when going out into the workforce, will look for an organization whose values align with mine. While I, as an individual, cannot change society and human biology, I can do my part to be loving and accepting of all different kinds of people, cause god knows we need more of both in this world.

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2 thoughts on “How Much Do Looks Really Matter?

  1. unfinnished says:

    Interesting. However, is part of it the confidence linked to “good-looking” people? Maybe that has something to do with it. But I guess to be honest, I’d feel more attracted to a confident good-looking person than a confident unattractive one.

    • joyceyl says:

      The “attractive” one definitely appeared more confident, but they didn’t really act differently in the scenarios. Both damsels in distress in the car incident, and friendly and outgoing in the charity experiment.

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