Relationship of Physical Appearance and Success


“The human body is understood as both a physiological creation and a social construct” (Brien, 2009). The importance of the human body is created by a web of interconnecting meaning and practice defined by societal ideas. It is an invaluable tool to communicate social norms, cultural practices, identity, and self-expression on both conscious and unconscious levels (Scheflen, 1972). Communicative queues from the body allow onlookers to determine factors such as potential for illness, differences social caste, and intent to harm (Fast, 1970). Despite this, it is socially unacceptable for people to use physical form as a basis for judgments of character.

Humanity seems to have a deep seated desire for a “fair world” in which personal success is determined by character traits more than physical traits. In the pursuit of a fair world, people create laws and bills that make appearance based discrimination like race, age, or sex illegal in several contexts. Amendments are passed that allow for all people to potentially become citizens of a nation, and prevents the process by which voting is affected by race or color. Even on a personal, household level people repeat the line “Don’t judge a book by its cover” to their children almost ad nauseum. This long list of laws and constant admonishment is in itself an admission that it is a natural practice for people to interpret personality traits from physical characteristics. Thus the question arises: How does physical appearance affect government, business, and personal life, and what explanations exist for its impact on these areas?


Appearance in Business

            There is a common ideal in people that states that success and opportunity should be equally available to all, and that it should not hinge on uncontrollable circumstances of life. Every person should be able to grow from their current position, achieving goals through competency. In reality, however, success in business often hinges appearance as well as competency. In physically related jobs like modeling, body building, or acting appearance logically plays a key role in a successful career. However, many studies have shown that even in jobs completely unrelated to appearance people who portray positive physical features tend to be more successful.

            While competency is considered and desirable, employers -consciously or otherwise- base part of their decision making processes off of factors involving external appearance of the body. In experimental and real world job interviews, physically attractive people were more likely to be hired than less attractive individuals (Cash and Kilcullen, 1985; Chiu and Babcock, 2002), and attractive applicant photos were shown to give increased appeal to mediocre applications (Watkins & Johnston, 2000). These results do not necessarily mean that appearance is the sole deciding factor in successful job applications. Regardless of interviewer attractiveness highly qualified applicants were preferred over poorly qualified applicants, but given a choice between two equally qualified applicants attractive candidates were preferred over unattractive candidates (Dipboye et al, 1977).

            Being tall is perceived to be positive physical trait, with height predicting mate tendencies (Hensley, 1994) and universally increased perception of dominance and wealth (Little, 2012). In a study done by Judge and Cable in 2004, height was shown to positively correlate with income when sex, age, and weigh were controlled. This correlation applies cross culturally, with taller men and women earning more on average in Mexico (Vogl, 2012), and taller coal mine workers in India earning more than shorter workers (Little, 2012). This implies that taller individuals are slightly more desirable to potential employers, no matter the economic and cultural settings. These studies are among many that seem to indicate that while employers do focus on capability and benefit to the company above all else, physical traits acts as an undeniable deciding factor within business hiring, and have a direct impact on payment and treatment in jobs.

Appearance in US Government

            The government of the United States of America is a democratic republic. The nation is run by a series of officials that are elected by gaining the approval of voting populations. Normative democratic theory requires educated, logical decision making on the part of the voters as they elect capable politicians that will represent their voter's population (Pateman, 1970). However, this expectation runs counter to empirical evidence that seems to indicate that voters rely on “low information rationality” to decide their vote (McDermott, 1997). This means that people base their decisions, in part, on instinctual reactions to the appearance of politicians. This judgment of appearance has been shown to have statistically significant results on the results of political races (Sigelman, Sigelman & Fowler, 1987).

            The political importance of appearance first became relevant during the 1960 election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Before the televised debate, Nixon was favored to win the election because of his competency and experience. Hours before the debate, Nixon underwent knee surgery and arrived on the set of the debate sweating, pale, and in obvious pain. Being a masculine individual, he refused all offers of makeup or primping. Kennedy, on the other hand, was a young, fit, tan politician who accepted the makeup provided. On the screen, “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully” while “Nixon looked like death” (Druckman 2003, 563). The results of the debate offered striking, if anecdotal, evidence of the importance of appearance. The population that witnessed the debate over the radio felt that Nixon won the debate, and preferred him for the election. The population that watched the debate over video, however, preferred Kennedy for the next president (Allen, 2010). Following poles suggested that over half of the voting population’s vote were influenced by the performance of the candidates in the debate, and 6% of the voters’ decision was based primarily off of the debate. With presidential elections regularly hinging off of a single percent of the voting population, this statistic attributes alarming significance to the debate and the appearance information heuristic that was involved in the voting process of this debate. 

Alexander Todorov and his collaborators offered objective evidence of appearance import. IN a study, student’s subjects were shown photos of United States House, Senate, and Gubernatorial candidates for as little as a tenth of a second. After viewing the flashed image, students were asked to decide which of the candidates appealed more in a variety of criterion including ratings of competence, intelligence, leadership, honesty, trustworthiness, charisma, and likeability. The results reported that the candidate’s ability (measured by an index of competence, leadership, and intelligence) predicted election results with 70% accuracy. Trends like this have been supported internationally by studying the same effect with Finish Politicians, in which appealing politicians performed better in national legislative elections (Berggren, Jordahl, and Poutvaara 2010). Correlations have also been found between specific physical traits and political success. In 60% of presidential elections the taller of the two candidates was elected in to office. While this was not statistically significant, once the sample is restricted to after 1900 (after the advent of photo journalism) the taller candidate won 80% of the time (Little, 2012, pp. 1-13). The overwhelming trend is that politicians with positive physical characteristics are significantly more likely to be voted for by the public.

Appearance in Emotion

            Physical beauty is not only shown to affect interpersonal aspects of life, but intrapersonal, emotional aspects as well. Loneliness is, by definition, a negative undesirable emotion. Beyond simply not being enjoyable, loneliness has been shown to have extensive negative impacts on physical and psychological health, resulting in increased rates of heart attack, stroke, suicide, and depression (Berscheid, 1978). In 1966 Walster, et al. held a dance at the University of Minnesota at which 752 men and women were randomly paired to form 376 couples. None of the subjects had previous knowledge of their counterpart before the study. After the test, the only significant predictor for a subject’s willingness to date their counterpart was their PAT rating. This study and common knowledge dictate that people are more likely to date and be in relationships with people who they are physically and sexually attracted to. This study does not claim that all relationships are based purely off of physical factors of attraction, but it does suggest that the physical traits of potential mates are vital in the coupling process of humanity, and by extension are vital to the avoidance of loneliness.

            Physical deformities act as prime examples of individuals on the extremely negative side of physical beauty. Despite what they self-righteous post on Facebook for an ego boost, individuals born with muscular dystrophy or facial congenital malformation are not, in concerns to physicality at least, as attractive as the average human. The deformed carry an almost universally negative stigma, constantly being cast as the villain, portrayed as diseased or immoral, a freak paying for sins in literature, media, and creative works. They are to be shunned, regarded with curiosity, or ridiculed and made a social outcast. In advertising on the radio or television people hear constantly that happiness is impossible with acne, wrinkles, double chins, etc. This perception is only bolstered by the droves of attractive, symmetrical, beautiful Heroes and Heroines that dominate popular culture and the film industry. Defects are seen as barriers to happiness or content living, urging people to strive towards attractiveness at all costs.        

Considering the endless drive and emphasis towards beauty, it is inevitable that those that are barred from beauty by disfigurement or deformity experience extremely negative psychological impacts. Ray Bull, from North East London Polytechnic, claimed that "There can be no question of the fact that physical deformities, especially facial defects, develop inferiority complexes which make employment difficult and, in the final analysis, may contribute to criminal behavior".  Disfigured individuals experience extensive periods of depression, loneliness and loss of self-worth, consequently increasing the likelihood for suicide, stress related medical issues like heart attacks, and isolation from society (MacGreggor, 1951). These trends are applicable in over 70 different examples of physical deformity, including examples like skin discoloration or altered bone structures that would not otherwise affect health or functionality. As such, the only logical catalyst for the extensive negative impacts of disfigurement is the importance social groups place on external figure.  

The previously mentioned studies suggest that appearance can have significant impacts on business, politics, and personal life.  In nearly every case, being physically attractive offers beneficial consequences and makes life easier in the long run, while being physically repulsive hinders and slows success. DionK K, Berscheid E & WalsterE dubbed this preference as the “What is beautiful is good” bias in 1972.Their experiment and terminology has become one of the most often cited works in the psychology of the human body, as it re-initiated a field of science that violated ideas of fair evaluation of others. Since the release of their paper the occurrence of PAT stereotyping has been documented extensively, but understanding the reasons behind the stereotype remains relatively, surprisingly, unstudied.              


Just World Theory

            Just World Theory is a hypothesis from Melvin J. Lerner and Dale T. Miller formed in 1978. It states that “humans have a need to believe that their environment is a just and orderly place where people get usually get what they deserve”. This enables people to perceive their environment in such a way that goals are achievable and harm is avoidable through a combination of foresight, planning, and hard work. Psychologists Kenneth and Karen Dion of the University of Toronto hypothesized that the Just World Hypothesis could be an explanation of physical attractiveness stereotyping.

            In order to test this, Dion et. al. provided subjects with a photo of a person to be judged, a sheet of scales for rating this stimulus person, and another sheet titled “Opinion Inventory” that involved questions used to measure belief in Just World Theory. After the subjects complete their rating of the person in the photo or their “opinion inventory” (subjects were asked to do one or the other to avoid data skew) the researchers described a situation in which the person in the photo receives a reward. The results were analyzed in order to account for the independent variables including attractiveness of stimulus person, sex of stimulus person, sex of subject, and belief of just world.  Strong correlations (p<.01) were found between believing in a just world and perceiving the personalities of male stimulus persons as being more socially desirable when the stimulus person was attractive rather than unattractive. As such, Dion et al concluded that a belief in a just world is associated with a tendency to rely on attractiveness in making judgments, and a tendency to follow the Beauty is Good bias.

            This study offers a possible explanation for the existence of a physical stereotype, but does not explain the near universality of the PAT stereotype. The beauty is good bias applies to more of the world than the just world hypothesis, and thus only applies as a factor of part of the population that participates in the bias (Dion, 1987, pp. 775-780).


One possible, if frowned upon, explanation for judgment on appearance is a concept known as Physiognomy. Physiognomy “consists in reading character by means of its indications in the developments of the body as a whole”(Wells, 1872, p.81). In simplistic terms, this explanation claims that appearance based judgments actually may have a grain of truth and are common practice because they can yield accurate information concerning character.

The key concept behind understanding Physiognomy was described in 1866 by Samuel Robert Wells. Known as the Law of Correspondence, this concept states that “differences of external form are the result and measure of pre-existing differences of internal character”. According to Wells, there are millions of variations in nature, resulting in every plant and animal portraying a unique characteristic. This unlimited set of differences in form and structure are reflected indications of difference in function and character. One could not associate the predatory, fighting structure of a Pit-bull to the delicate, fleeting bodies of the Greyhound. Every natural structure exists as a result of a function, so why would this rule not apply to humans? It is important to note that this does not claim that by analyzing appearance one can list off every character trait a person may portray. Rather, appearance offers a guideline that suggests probable tendencies towards violence or pacifism, anger or softer temperance, vanity or humility, etc. Consider the difference in appearance between mixed martial artists and librarians, between painters and lumberjacks, between line cooks and old money college professors. Each member of their respective professions looks different, but when grouped librarians and fighters will have different physical forms. These physical forms have the potential to yield broad spectrums of information to those who know what to look for, and could possibly be the source of people’s unconscious flash judgments.

            The entire argument given by Wells in the 19th century was based off of logic and associative reasoning. While this can be a sound method of deducing information, it has undeniable short comings -namely a lack of objective evidence. This subjectivity is one of the reasons Physiognomy is considered a pseudoscience currently, but over the course of the past few decades new research has been made that objectively supports claims of physiognomy. For example, men with wide faces have been empirically proven to be more aggressive –both in laboratory and real world settings- (Carré, 2008, pp. 2651-2656), more deceptive in negotiation (Haselhuhn, 2011, pp. 571-576), and more self-sacrificing for in-group in competitions (Stirrat, 2012, pp. 718-722). These trends are explained by fact that having a wide face as a male is an indication of the presence of testosterone. Tall humans have been shown to be smarter, stronger, and more durable than their shorter counterparts (Haddad, 1991, pp. 45-68).  This can be explained because humans are shown to grow taller as a result of sufficient nourishment and exercise in childhood, often as a consequence of a healthy household and family support.

It is relatively common knowledge that interpersonal perception is based in part on appearance, and many individuals believe that this change in perception is the extent of the importance of appearance. The concepts and evidence behind physiognomy directly contradict this belief and indicate that appearance judgment is useful to gain rudimentary information about other people. However, it is important to note that there is limited research supporting the practice. Because of this limited research, it is impossible to ascertain if Physiognomy is a valid explanation for the importance of appearance for humanity. There are also possible dangers behind physiognomic concepts that will be addressed later.

Evolutionary Psychology

The most commonly cited and widely accepted explanation of physical based stereotyping is that it developed during the evolution of Homo sapiens. The premise of this explanation is that the ability to make flash judgments based on appearance and visual cues was a beneficial trait for survival in a prehistoric world. Humanity has survived and evolved largely as a result of group mechanics and interpersonal relationships, forcing early humans to interact with each other on extremely regularly. Beings that were capable of instantly recognizing others as sources of danger, leadership, or support in this involved group mechanic would logically have and increased ability to survive, reproduce, and teach/pass on physical recognition capabilities.

Evidence for this explanation begins with an understanding that all things evolved from microbial life to what is now. Over the course of this evolution, limiting factors placed pressures on species that made survival a possibility only for the most capable populations. As a species on this planet, Homo sapiens were subject to pressures just the same as all others, including survival against predators, competing with other hominids for nourishment, and ability to reproduce effectively. Being able to instantly tell what intends to do you harm allows people survive more ably against predators and competing hominids, and may explain the current day commonality of flash judgments about others concerning aggression and violence (Carré, 2008). Being able to interpret leadership traits in faces and figure would assist in the formation of leaders and stream line group living. This explanation is by necessity very subjective and speculative due to the inability to experiment and observe the tendencies of extinct early hominoid social behavior.

This theory is particularly compelling when you consider its ability to explain the universal nature of PAT stereotypes. Because the tendency to judge appearances is found in almost every culture, every ethnicity, and every fiscal level, it has been incredibly difficult for sociologists and psychologists to explain observed trends with behavioral or cognitive psychology. If the beauty is good bias can indeed be explained through evolutionary psychology, then two things are true. First, it is a trait that helped humans survive against dangers and find potential mates, and thus is something to be embraced. Second, the advent and common practice of the PAT stereotype would be understandable despite societal rejection, and capable to be labeled under human nature.


            It is undeniable that people are treated differently by others based on appearance. The phenomenon has been documented thoroughly, studied completely, and firmly concluded that attractive people are preferred in interpersonal interactions. This conclusion includes interactions concerning business, politics, law, and social life. The Beauty is Good bias has been confirmed by dozens, if not hundreds, of psychological and sociological studies. The only ambiguity left in the topic is the reasons behind it. From an analysis of the all of the trends and patterns that exist concerning physical stereotypes, as well as the benefits and dangers of each explanation for these trends, a select few truths and applications can be observed.
            People will use shallow judgments to determine the treatment of others. Perhaps it is not a conscious practice, but it is one that is almost universally present in humanity. This knowledge can either be applied to personally avoid appearance judgments, or to take advantage of the inevitability that others will judge based on appearance. If a person is knowledgeable on the majority of areas of life where they are likely to judge others based on appearance and uses logic and reason to overrule the subconscious, emotional reactions to appearance, it may be possible to mitigate the effects of personal flash judgments of others. Alternatively, one could embrace the existence of the stereotype and deliberately manipulate their appearance to impress desired perceptions of character upon viewers. Candidates for leadership can- and often do- use subtle make up, traditional haircuts, and power suits to give impressions of strength and capability. People who rely on others trust for personal success, such as bankers, lawyers, or psychiatrists, can manipulate their external appearance to give impressions of reliability and honesty with loosely formal clothes and understated, modest hair and accessories.

            There is not a consensus on reasons for why people judge others based on appearance. While each explanation has benefits and can offer positive impacts towards impressionistic judgments of character, it also has moral dangers. If physiognomy is accurate, it would allow appearance judgments to be used objectively. Understanding and remembering linked physical traits and characteristics would allow rapid understanding of strangers and help with social interaction. However, it cannot offer perfect information concerning character traits, at best only providing broad spectrums of information concerning character to the observer. If evolutionary psychology is correct, the result of understanding the difference between physical characteristics of danger and safety would help people avoid those that are a menace and gravitate towards healthy influences in life. If the practice is taken to an extreme level it could result in attractive people being perceived and treated as categorically superior to the ugly, more deserving of life and benefits in a multitude of settings that could result in powerfully negative societal changes and creations of social elitism. If Just World theory is accurate then the fate of humanity can be altered by hard work, and people can avoid negative effects of appearance by being a good enough person, but ugly people not only are inferior to the attractive, but they also deserve to be inferior. 

The logical cause for the bias lies in a combination of the previously mentioned explanations. The objective evidence and logic of physiognomy give validation to the claim that people’s appearance can affect their behavior and belief systems. Because appearance and behavior are linked, it would be beneficial to survival to be able to perceive preemptive hints concerning behavior in other people during Homo sapiens evolution, as claimed by evolutionary psychology. The appearance of mal-intent or benevolence in early species could have inspired concepts that those who held malicious intent deserved negative things, and those who wished to be kind deserved good aspects of life, thus giving way to Just World Theory. If this collaboration of ideas is true, the result is that understanding the importance of appearance could both increase understanding of the people in society, and an improved ability to judge character quickly. As long as these concepts are not taken to an extreme, the ability to judge a book by its cover has the potential to be beneficial on a governmental, societal, and personal scale.  



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