Being attractive has an unexpected cost, researchers find
As problems go, being considered too handsome or beautiful fits somewhere beneath running out of places to store Fabergé eggs, and finding out that your brand new diamond shoes are slightly too tight. Nonetheless, researchers from the London Business School have new evidence that suggests super attractive people face their own kind of discrimination: they’re likely to be overlooked for mundane and entry-level jobs.
That may feel like the weakest of drawbacks, but discrimination is discrimination – and the important thing about entry-level jobs is they give you the qualifications and experience to undertake better paying and more fulfilling work. If attractive people can’t get a break at the ground floor, then their future prospects are in jeopardy.
“Our research suggests that attractive people may be discriminated against in selection for relatively less desirable jobs,” said the paper’s lead author Margaret Lee from the London Business School. “This stands in contrast to a large body of research that concluded that attractiveness, by and large, helps candidates in the selection process.”
But just how did the researchers reach these conclusions anyway? Through a series of four experiments where subjects were asked to pick between a visually stunning candidate, and one more akin to us mortals.
(A quick word here on who decides what’s attractive and what isn’t – this was based on the researchers’ previous work. So subjective as it may first appear, there are objective measures for most people’s’ eyes, which is good enough for this paper.)
The first of these involved 148 volunteers asked to guess which of the two subjects was dissatisfied with their job. The second involved just shy of 200 volunteers asked to pick which of the two candidates was best suited to work as a job title that’s so bland I may struggle to finish this sentence: “Team Member in the Business Operations Department.” The remaining two studies involved grilling volunteers about whether real and fictional candidates would be hired for high-end and low-end positions – and the latter of these experiments involved real life HR managers.
The findings were pretty clear: if you want that entry-level job, it actually pays to look less perfect. The authors found that participants viewed attractive participants as feeling more entitled to the best positions. As a result, they would be more inclined to hire the less beautiful subject for low-end work. This is particularly harsh as the more beautiful volunteers weren’t any more likely to self-report a greater sense of entitlement than the rest.
“The most interesting part of our findings is that decision makers take into consideration others’ assumed aspirations in their decisions,” said co-author Madan Pillutla. “Because participants thought that attractive individuals would want better outcomes, and therefore participants predicted that attractive individuals would be less satisfied, they reversed their discrimination pattern and favoured unattractive candidates when selecting for a less desirable job.”
It’s hard to feel too much compassion in a story that essentially boils down to “impossibly attractive people are overlooked for dull jobs,” but it’s still discrimination, and it hints at an inherent bias that goes well beyond CVs.
On the bright side, perhaps you can turn this into a positive. I’ll certainly be looking back at every failed job interview with the assumption I was just too beautiful for the company now. Doubtless, I’d have just proven a distraction, and it wasn’t at all that I was disastrously unqualified: they just had to pick my homely rival.