“What is Beautiful is Good” – Beauty Bias in Selection

By Leonardo Almonti

Beauty bias in selection plays a significant role in the workplace and we cannot ignore it anymore!

If we are looking for the perfect candidate, we cannot afford any sort of distraction. However, as we know, the human mind is always up for distractions (e.g. Cognitive Dissonance, Halo Effect, Illusion of Control). This is due to the fact that our brain has to deal with several bits of information every second, and creates unconscious shortcuts in order to be able to process them. Among the many different shortcuts that can affect our judgment, there is one that is particularly interesting: the beauty bias in selection.

What is beautiful is good

What is beautiful is good” is a stereotype which resides in general knowledge. Even so, from a scientific point of view, beauty bias is robust and permeates different areas of life (Shahani-Denning, 2003; Shahani-Denning et al., 1993). One of them is certainly personnel selection.

Nowadays, people in the selection practice dedicate extra-care to several kinds of biases. As a matter of fact, race, gender, ethnicity, disability and age discrimination are condemned and legislated against all over the modern and developed world – or at least they should be. Despite this, the beauty bias in selection seems to go under the track – although it can harm the candidates, violating their rights, and the employer, hiring people on the basis of their physical appearance even in roles where it would be irrelevant (Shahani-Denning, 2003).

What is the “beauty bias”?

The beauty bias postulates that what is considered beautiful is also perceived as good. Dion et al. present this concept for the first time in 1972 as follow:

Not only are physically attractive persons assumed to possess more socially desirable personalities than those of lesser attractiveness, but it is presumed that their lives will be happier and more successful.

Since then, several studies confirmed this assumption over and over. Attractive people are in fact perceived as more sociable, happier and successful than unattractive people (Shahani-Denning, 2003), and even more competent (Luxen & Van De Vijver, 2006). This is perfectly consistent with the famous Halo Effect, but there is more to it.

Beauty bias in personnel selection

As we mentioned, the perception that what is beautiful is good influences even the selection process. In fact, HR professionals suffer from this bias like any other human (Luxen & Van De Vijver, 2006). The overall effect is that recruiters systematically prefer attractive people over unattractive people. This lead to the fact that in general, beautiful men and beautiful women have more chances to get the job they applied for (Luxen & Van De Vijver, 2006).

Nevertheless, if we analyze the phenomenon more in deep, we can recognize an interesting pattern: it is not that recruiters always prefer more beautiful people, but they actually prefer beautiful people if those could be a potential partner. In fact, male recruiters are found to be more likely to hire beautiful women, while female recruiters beautiful men (even though there is a difference in the magnitude of this effect, with male recruiters showing a stronger preference; Luxen & Van De Vijver, 2006). Even more interestingly, this is especially true if the recruiter knows that the candidate will be working in close contact with them (therefore, increasing the chance of an approach; Luxen & Van De Vijver, 2006).

Another surprising effect, since it is somehow in contradiction with the heuristic of “what is beautiful is good”, is that female recruiters tend to give lower scores to beautiful female applicants, preferring unattractive females to them. All of this may surprise you, but not evolutionary psychologists.

what is beautiful is good Beauty bias in selection
As described, male recruiters evaluate female applicants much higher than male ones, with a larger preference for beautiful women over non-beautiful women. The same is true for female recruiters, which prefer males, especially attractive ones, but not beautiful women once they are compared with unattractive ones (Luxen &Van De Vijver, 2006).

Why? An evolutionary explanation?

Most of the time, biased evaluations are understood within the social role theoretical framework (Eagly & Wood, 2012). For example, gender and race discrimination have been addressed as a mechanism to perpetuate the status quo and the inequality system (Eagly & Wood, 2012). It is interesting to note that these theories are not applicable in the same way for the beauty bias. In fact, even though the beauty bias is present as a general effect, there are more complex implications. For this reason, researchers have proposed another possible explanation for its existence.

By an evolutionary point of view, mate selection could explain this pattern of preferences. In fact, as humans, we develop different strategies to recognize potential good partners. One of these strategies is face attractiveness (mainly in terms of symmetry), as a sign for good genes. The purpose of this is to select the best mate in order to produce the best offsprings or increase the chance of survival. As strange as it may sounds, a photo on the CV of a candidate is, therefore, the perfect indicator for such an evaluation.

what is beautiful is good Beauty bias in selection
For instance, these are the pictures that Shahani-Denning use as example for experimental design (2003). Researchers manipulated photographs in order to make the faces asymmetrical.

In this sense, recruiters will be unconsciously selecting people on the basis of mate selection, choosing to hire the best partners for them (more beautiful men or women) and excluding potential competitors (female recruiters excluding beautiful women; Luxen & Van De Vijver, 2006).

N.B.

The reason why males express a larger preference than women for beautiful candidates is that again, from an evolutionary standpoint, males gather much more information from beauty and physical attractiveness than females do (while females tend to look for other signs like status and power, not usually related to physical appearance). For the very same reason, female recruiters would be more threatened by beautiful competitors than their male counterpart do (Luxen & Van De Vijver, 2006). Explaining in details the evolutionary reasons for this effect is beyond the goal of this article, you can find more in this paper.

What’s the solution?

Dealing with biases is always rather complex. However, an effective solution against physical appearance discrimination can be found in blind recruitment & selection. Already applied to deal with other kinds of discrimination, like the previously cited race, gender, ethnicity, disability and age, blind recruitment consists in polices like removing photographs from CVs of candidates and erasing other personal information that could be used as a proxy for unconscious discrimination (e.g. age, address, gender, etc.). If the recruiters cannot see or understand that the applicant they are selecting is a beautiful possible partner, no beauty bias should influence their decision.

To push this solution even further, some have tried to conduct blind interviews, in which the candidate is masked by a voice filter and the recruiter cannot even see their face (although the result of this practice on gender discrimination was unclear; to know more you can check this article). In this way, however inhuman it may sound, we will be sure that we do not have the problem of beauty bias in our selection!

REFERENCES

Dion, K., Berscheid, E. & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285-290.

Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (2012). Social role theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology, 458–476.

Luxen, M. F. & Van De Vijver, F. J. R. (2006). Facial attractiveness, sexual selection, and personnel selection: when evolved preferences matter. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(2), 241-255.

Shahani-Denning, C. (2003). Physical Attractiveness Bias in Hiring: What is Beautiful is Good. Hofstra Horizons, Spring.

Shahani-Denning, C., Dipboye, R. L. & Gehrlein, T., M. (1993). Attractiveness Bias in the Interview: Exploring the Boundaries of an Effect. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 14(3), 317-328.