You might find yourself wondering why people find physical attractiveness so important when it seems to say so little about what the person is really like as a person. If beauty is really only “skin deep,” as the proverb goes, why are we so concerned with it?
One reason that we like attractive people is because they are rewarding. We like being around attractive people because they are enjoyable to look at and because being with them makes us feel good about ourselves. Attractiveness can imply high status, and we naturally like being around people who have it. Furthermore, the positive features of attractive people tend to “rub off” on those around them as a result of associational learning (Sigall & Landy, 1973).
As we touched on earlier in our discussion of the what is beautiful is good heuristic, we may also like attractive people because they are seen as better friends and partners. Physically more attractive people are seen as more dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled than are physically less attractive people (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991). These assumptions about the internal qualities of attractive people also show some cross-cultural consistency. For example, individuals from Eastern and Western cultures tend to agree that attractiveness signifies qualities like sociability and popularity. On the other hand, there is some evidence that those from collectivistic cultures, which stress interdependence, tend to equate attractiveness with traits related to concern for others than those from more independently oriented, individualistic cultures (Wheeler & Kim, 1997). The opposite was found in regards to traits stressing independence.
One outcome of favorable evaluations of and behaviors toward attractive people is that they receive many social benefits from others. Attractive people are given better grades on essay exams, are more successful on job interviews, and receive lighter sentences in court judgments in comparison with their less attractive counterparts (Hosoda, Stone-Romero, & Coats, 2003). We are all of course aware of the physical attractiveness stereotype and make use of it when we can. We try to look our best on dates, at job interviews, and (not necessary, we hope!) for court appearances.
As with many stereotypes, there may be some truth to the what is beautiful is good stereotype. Research has found at least some evidence for the idea that attractive people are actually more sociable, more popular, and less lonely compared with less attractive individuals (Diener, Wolsic, & Fujita, 1995). These results are probably partly the result of self-fulfilling prophecies. Because people expect attractive others to be friendly and warm, and because they want to be around them, they treat attractive people more positively than they do unattractive people. In the end, this may lead attractive people to develop these positive characteristics (Zebrowitz, Andreoletti, Collins, Lee, & Blumenthal, 1998). However, as with most stereotypes, our expectations about the different characteristics of attractive and unattractive individuals are much stronger than the real differences between them.