Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beautyby Nancy Etcoff, Nancy L. Etcoff
In this provocative, witty, and thoroughly researched inquiry into what we find beautiful and why, Nancy Etcoff skewers one of our culture's most enduring myths, that the pursuit of beauty is a learned behavior. Etcoff, a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, skewers the enduring myth that the pursuit of beauty is a learned behavior.
Etcoff puts forth that beauty is neither a cultural construction, an invention of the fashion industry, nor a backlash against feminism, but instead is in our biology. It's an essential and ineradicable part of human nature that is revered and ferociously pursued in nearly every civilizatoinand for good reason. Those features to which we are most attracted are often signals of fertility and fecundity. When seen in the context of a Darwinian struggle for survival, our sometimes extreme attempts to attain beautyboth to become beautiful ourselves and to acquire an attractive partnerbecome understandable. Moreover, if we come to understand how the desire for beauty is innate, then we can begin to work in our interests, and not soley for the interests of our genetic tendencies.
The New York Times Book Review
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
"Survival of the Prettiest is the first book to pull all of the science on beauty into one lively yet thoughtful package, showing again that it's not just ax-grinding males who believe that biology continues to play an important role in our lives." The New York Times Book Review
"Through a series of global scientific studies, Etcoff . . . presents a compelling argument for why so many cultures are influenced by beauty." The Boston Globe
"Nancy Etcoff . . . writes confidently that today's culture of beauty is not a backlash against feminism. She delves into why we devour fashion magazines, agonize about waist sizes, and gaze longingly at objects of desire." Houston Chronicle
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Read an Excerpt
Many people have an idyllic conception of childhood as a time when beauty does not matter. Listen to children taunt and tease each other in a schoolyard shrimp, squirt, four eyes, fatso to quickly disabuse yourself of that notion. Children gravitate to beauty. One of photographer Richard Avedon's first snapshots was of his seven-year-old sister Louise. The nine-year-old Avedon was so entranced by her that he taped the negative to his skin and had the sun burn it into his shoulder. Her oval face, dark hair, big eyes, and long throat became "the prototype of what I considered to be beautiful. She was the original Avedon beauty." His later photographs of models Dovima, Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh, and Carmen Dell'Orefice "are all memories of Louise."
Children are sensitive to beauty from a very early age, but how and when do they acquire their preferences? The popular wisdom is that children learn beauty preferences through acculturation. Perhaps their parents foist certain tastes upon them, then peers rebelliously revise the aesthetics, and pop culture finally fine-tunes it. As Robin Lakoff and Raquel Scherr wrote in their 1984 book Face Value, "Beauty is not instantly and instinctively recognizable: we must be trained from childhood to make those discriminations."
But psychologist Judith Langlois is convinced that no lessons are required: we are born with preferences and even a baby knows beauty when she sees it. Langlois collected hundreds of slides of people's faces and asked adults to rate them for attractiveness. When she presented these faces to three- and six-month-old babies, they stared significantly longer at the faces that adults found attractive. The babies gauged beauty in diverse faces: they looked longer at the most attractive men, women, babies, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Caucasians. This suggests not only that babies have beauty detectors but that human faces may share Universal features of beauty across their varied features.
Langlois is quick to point out that infants show preferences for beautiful unfamiliar faces. It is unlikely that an infant's behavior toward his or her caregivers is influenced by their facial beauty, given the importance of attachment to the baby's survival. Nor is she suggesting that babies with attractive mothers have a special eye for beauty. Babies looked longer at attractive faces regardless of the mother's attractiveness.
The notion that infants come prewired with beauty detectors was not the prevailing theory when Judith Langlois began her research ten years ago. The idea that an infant would be peering out at the world with the eyes of a neonate beauty judge is downright discomfiting: even they notice looks? But her results are part of a growing body of evidence that infants share a universal set of sensual preferences. They prefer to look more at symmetrical patterns than at asymmetrical ones, and to touch soft surfaces rather than rough ones. By four months of age they prefer consonant to dissonant music. When psychologists Jerome Kagan and Marcel Zentner played dissonant melodies to babies, they wrinkled their noses in disgust. Kagan and Zentner felt that they were witnessing the first signs of a preference for easy listening and mellifluous crooning. We can learn to love dissonance, but it is an acquired taste.
Babies pay close attention to the human face. Within ten minutes of emerging from the mother's body, their eyes follow a line drawing of a face. By day two they can discriminate their mother's face from a face they have never seen before. The next day they begin mimicking facial actions: stick out your tongue at a newborn and the baby will do the same. Each newborn orients immediately toward whatever is biologically significant, and topmost will be people who ensure her survival.
Babies look almost as long at a person's eyes as they do at the whole face, and see there much of what they need to know. The movements of the eyes and of the muscles surrounding the eyes, the changes in pupil size, and the gleam or dullness in our eyes express nuances of feeling. The small individual differences in distances around the eyes created by the facial bone structure is one of the most enduring parts of our visual signature, and as unique as fingerprints. Automatic face recognition systems guided by computers recognize faces better from the eyes alone than from the nose or mouth alone. Computers learning to detect faces from nonfaces are most easily fooled by interference with the eye regions. This is why masking only the area around the eyes has proved an effective disguise from Don Juan in the fourteenth century to the Lone Ranger in the twentieth.
If babies see someone looking at them, they look back, and usually they smile. Their interest piqued, they will look up to three times as long at a face looking at them as at a face looking away. Unlike prey animals such as rabbits and deer which have panoramic, surround vision, humans, like hawks and leopards and other predators, look precisely at what they are thinking about. This is why babies come equipped with mechanisms to detect direction of gaze, and why the human eye may have evolved its distinctive appearance. Unlike most animals, which have sclera that darken with age, humans retain white sclera all of their lives. The whites of the eyes help us gauge where eyes are looking and give us a good idea of what has captured other people's attention and what might be on their minds.
An animal stalked by lions, which can see prey from a mile away, would not be greatly benefited by seeing the whites of their eyes. By then, it's all over. But for humans living in close proximity and dependent on one another for survival, direction of gaze is an effective form of communication, whether in the form of the predatory gaze, the beseeching look, or the look of love.
The newborn baby's preferences are formes frustes of adult preferences. Babies turn into adults who like symmetry and harmony and things that feel smooth; they are riveted by the sight of the human face, and aroused when eyes meet theirs. The three-month-old who stares at beautiful faces grows up to be the usual person whose head is turned by the sight of beauty and who can fall in love by looking. When babies fix their stare at the same faces adults describe as highly attractive, their actions wordlessly argue against the belief that culture must teach us to recognize human beauty.
Meanwhile, the baby is being sized up by adults. Fifty years ago the ethologist Konrad Lorenz suggested that infant features set off a rush of tender emotions. Infants come equipped with many triggers. They have soft skin and hair, huge eyes, big pupils, chubby cheeks, and small noses. Their heads are big and their limbs are small and springy. Infants would die without our care, and so they had better arrive irresistible.
The reaction to baby features is automatic and we behave tenderly toward any creature who mimics them. Toy manufacturers and cartoonists capitalize on our innate preferences for juvenile features. Born in the 1930s, Mickey Mouse began his life so debonair and lithe that writer Graham Greene described Fred Astaire in the movie Top Hat as "the human Mickey." But over the next fifty years Mickey aged in reverse. His eyes and head kept getting bigger while his limbs kept getting shorter and thicker. Mickey now mimics the basic geometry of the human infant. Disney's Bambi has the exaggerated high forehead of an infant, as well as those doe eyes.
Cute features are accidents of biological development. The baby's brain and nervous system develop early, and the baby's eyes are almost adult size at birth while the hands and feet are tiny miniatures of what they will become. Although there is nothing intrinsically beautiful about huge eyes and small hands, the basic baby construction has profound meaning to us and elicits tender feelings. Just as chicks have stripes, lion cubs have spots and tail rings, and baby chimps have white tail tufts, humans have big heads and big eyes, chubby cheeks and little noses that signal their helplessness. Jane Goodall found that baby chimps were safe from attack as long as they retained the tuft of white on the tail, suggesting that the white tail tufts are biological tags warning adults not to harm the little chimp. The visible labels that humans wear in their first year of life may serve the same purpose: to turn off aggression.
Queen Victoria, mother of nine, once said, "An ugly baby is a very nasty object." Perhaps she was just voicing her Victorian disdain for untidy, ill-mannered creatures. For most people, there are no ugly babies, just as there are no ugly puppies or ugly brides. All babies are cute, or at least cute to their parents, who find them so from the second they are born. As Anna Quindlen said, "Who was it coined that old saw about God making them so cute so we will not kill them? It has particular resonance at 4 A.M."
However, it turns out that there are slight differences in the way mothers act during their newborns' first few days of life, and some of this behavior is in response to the baby's appearance. Psychologists videotaped mothers and infants within days after the baby's birth and then three months later. They also had a separate set of observers look at color photographs of the babies and rate their attractiveness.
They found that the mothers of the most attractive newborns spent the most time holding the baby close, staring into the baby's eyes and vocalizing to the baby. They needed to be forcibly unglued in order to pay attention to anyone else. The mothers of the less attractive newborns spent more time tending to the baby's needs (wiping, burping, checking, adjusting, and so on) and had their attention deflected more easily. They were not neglectful, but they seemed more reserved in their affection and a little less swept off their feet.
The researchers did not ask the mothers to rate their infants' looks, perhaps because they thought it too incendiary. But they did ask the mothers a number of questions about the baby and about child care. The mothers of the less attractive babies were more likely to report feelings of stress, complain about lack of time and energy, and worry about money. These differences largely disappeared by three months, although mothers were still being more affectionate and playful with their attractive baby boys at this age.
People find it easy to make judgments about which babies are the cutest (this is why there are infant beauty contests and Gerber babies). Beautiful babies are typical babies, or babies whose features mildly exaggerate the typical baby geometry: they just push all the triggers. Babies considered ugly do not have all the triggers, and it makes them look older, as if some version of their future face had been placed on their newborn body. Babies born prematurely, like many at-risk babies, have these falsely mature faces. When their pictures are mixed in with pictures of full-term babies, these babies are imagined to be difficult and irritable, and people are less willing to volunteer to take care of them. In fact, babies who are not cute can suffer even more dire consequences. When abused children under court protection were studied in California and Massachusetts, it turned out that a disproportionate number of them were unattractive. This wasn't because they were badly groomed or bore unhappier facial expressions than other children. Rather, abused kids had head and face proportions that made them look less infantile and cute. Such children may be more likely to suffer abuse because their faces do not elicit the automatic reaction of protection and care that more infantile faces do. These children may also be perceived as more capable than they are and may be more subject to unrealistic expectations because of their older appearance. There is evidence that abusing parents often do have unrealistic expectations of their children. Finally, their unusual appearance may signal poorer health or viability, as it may with a premature infant.
In the animal world, newborns who advertise their health and viability get more attention from their mothers. American coots are grayish-black birds whose chicks have vivid orange plumes and bald heads that turn bright red during feeding. Chicks beg for food visually, flashing their red and orange signs for their mother. If researchers cut back the orange plumes, the drabber chicks get less attention and less food from the mothers, who feed the colorful, good-looking chicks first. The mothers appear to be ignoring the ones assumed to be not healthy enough to display their colors.
Such behavior is not worlds away from mothers of high-risk, low-birth-weight twins in a United States suburb who were studied by psychologist Janet Mann. Mann observed that by eight months the mothers showed clear preferences for one of the twins, spending more time soothing, holding, playing, and vocalizing with her. It did not seem to matter which infant cooed, smiled, or followed the mother more, all mothers favored the healthier twin. Although mothers usually provided roughly equal care and feeding to both babies, in two cases where the families were extremely poor, the sicker twin appeared to be severely neglected. Mann concluded that the mothers had developed preferences (that were not conscious) for the twin most likely to survive, preferences driven by mechanisms which over the course of evolution have maximized a mother's reproductive fitness.
The difficult truth is that throughout evolutionary history parents have faced limited and uncertain resources, and at-risk babies have been less likely to survive. A mother sensitive to cues of her baby's health and viability would be more reproductively successful knowing how much to invest in this new baby without endangering herself and the lives of her other children. This is not a cold calculation but a realistic consequence of tragic circumstance.
Parents today may never face such heartbreaking dilemmas. They may have the resources and the safety to invest time and energy in a child at serious risk. But, as we can see from close observations of mothers with newborns, they must still override evolved mechanisms from an ancient brain to do so. Parents still tend to favor healthy babies and respond most affectionately to babies who look most like typical, big-eyed, small-nosed, round-cheeked bundles. In the ancestral environment, the baby's appearance was the best early diagnostic indicator of whether the baby would survive, and whether or not to unleash to-die-for love.
Father Knows Best
Parents may be cautious before giving away their hearts, but once they've sensed that their baby is viable, they open all the doors. Remember that the infant's looks are most important in the first days of life. By then, if not before, parents believe that, among many other sterling attributes, their baby is better-looking than anyone else's. Parents and family members also peer into a baby's face to see whom he or she resembles. Immediately after the baby's birth, mothers are apt to say that the baby resembles the father.
Psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly sent questionnaires to hundreds of new mothers and fathers and their relatives. They found that claims of paternal resemblance were very common, and were significantly more common than claims of maternal resemblance. Indeed, in many families "everyone" commented on the baby's resemblance to the father.
Daly and Wilson interpret their findings this way: mothers have no doubt that the baby is theirs, but fathers always run some risk of being duped. Before DNA testing, fathers had two sources of information: their knowledge of the mother's fidelity, and physical evidence from the appearance of the baby. Facial features are highly heritable. Emphasizing the baby's resemblance to the father helps to erase any doubts and stoke his affection and investment in the newborn. Mothers respond to healthy cuteness; fathers also want to know, Does she look like me? Seeing some reflection of his own features in the baby's face is a powerful trigger of paternal feelings.
In the 1920s anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski went to the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific. Trobrianders believed that the mother is impregnated by spirits, not semen. Yet people suggested that children resembled the "father" (the mother's husband) more than their mothers or siblings. It was even considered bad manners to suggest that a child resembled the mother.
Daly and Wilson suggest that fathers everywhere are sensitive to whether or not the baby resembles them and mothers everywhere encourage the father's belief in the baby's resemblance. Such behaviors probably operate automatically. They appear even if the man doesn't have a clue as to how babies are conceived, as is the case with the Trobrianders. Daly and Wilson warn that there may be a dark side to the father's desire for a baby who looks like him. For example, in families in which one child is singled out for abuse, it may well be the child least resembling the father. Adoptions are more successful when parents perceive the child to be similar to themselves. Daly and Wilson predict that this factor will be more important to adoptive fathers than to adoptive mothers.
Of course, baby looks are general crowd pleasers. Women's pupils and children's pupils dilate involuntarily when they see pictures of babies. No one begrudges babies their beauty nor would most doubt that their beauty is an adaptive solution to an evolutionary problem: how to guarantee their survival. Babies teach us that responses to physical beauty are automatic, and irresistible, that they start early and run deep.
Appearance and Reality
Life would be much easier if we retained the compelling power of appearance that we have as babies. As we leave infancy, we lose the protection cuteness affords. Our white tail tuft gone, we face the world unshielded: adult beauty is a great advantage, but it protects the few, not the many.
We face a world where lookism is one of the most pervasive but denied of prejudices. People like to believe that looks don't matter. But every marketing executive knows that packaging and image are as important as the product, if not more so. We treat appearance not just as a source of pleasure or shame but as a source of information. Minds are not designed to disentangle surface and substance easily: deep down, few people believe that the relation between the two is accidental or arbitrary. Young children find it especially difficult to separate appearance from reality. When psychologists show a young child a squirrel, and then shave it and paint it so that it looks like a raccoon, the child will say that it is now a raccoon. They are so swayed by appearance that they forget that the squirrel is still there beneath the shaved and painted exterior.
There is a good evolutionary reason why we place so much value on appearance. Looks have been a reasonable and sometimes solitary guide to what is good and what is bad for us. Brown spots and wrinkled skin tell us that fruit is past nutritional peak, and green color may tell us that it is unripe. Biologist George Orians believes that we share universal preferences for particular landscapes because they signal safety and refuge. In collaboration with Judith Heerwagen, he surveyed painters, gardeners, photographers, and others about what kinds of landscapes they consider beautiful, Orians and Heerwagen found that all were attracted to landscapes with large trees, views of the horizon, water, changes in elevation, and multiple paths out. Geographer Jay Appleton suggests that such environments offer prospect and refuge, the ability to monitor the outside world from a safe place.
What do we look for in other people? For centuries, people thought that the human face forecast character and personality. As Tolstoy lamented, "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness." As we will see, goodness, at least moral goodness, has nothing to do with it.
The idea that carnal beauty is visible evidence of spiritual beauty can be traced back at least as far as Plato, who believed that mortal beauty was a reflection of ideal beauty. Sappho wrote that "what is beautiful is good." These ideas flourished again among the Renaissance humanists. Marsilio Ficino saw beauty as "the blossom so to speak of goodness. By the allurements of this blossom, as though by a kind of bait, the latent interior goodness attracts all who see it.... We would never know the goodness hidden away in the inner nature of things, nor desire it, unless we were led to it by manifestations in exterior appearance." Baldassare Castiglione wrote in 1561 that "beauty is a sacred thing ... only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness ... it can be said that in some manner the good and the beautiful are identical, especially in the human body. And the proximate cause of physical beauty is, in my opinion, the beauty of the soul." Sociologist Anthony Synott remarks that Castiglione's ideas represent "a superb synthesis of biology and theology, the profane and the sacred, sex and God." They revel in the beauty of the physical body and call it worship of the soul.
Ugliness was a sign of the bad, mad, or dangerous. Deformities, ugliness, and disease were seen as stigmas branded onto the body by a wrathful God. Castiglione said, "For the most part the ugly are also evil." In the sixteenth century Francis Bacon wrote, "Deformed persons are ... (as the Scripture saith) void of natural affection."
Attempts to specify the particular facial characteristics that give clues to character date back to Aristotle. In 1586, Giovanni Della Porta, an Italian naturalist and philosopher, wrote a treatise called De humana physiognoma in which he attempted to understand the relationship between body and soul in humans. Since human personalities are opaque and complex, he found it useful to draw analogies to animals that have a simpler psychology. His scheme was based on the magical belief that things that look alike are alike. Each animal has a defining passion and, by analogy, each human who resembles an animal shares this passion. An ass is foolish, a mule is stubborn, a rabbit is timid, an ox is dumb, and a pig is dirty and greedy. Della Porta argued that if a man bore resemblance to a particular animal "let him be aware that he will behave in a similar fashion." In other words, if you look like an ass you will act like an ass, and if you look like a fox, a fox you are.
In writings from Plato onward, the straight profile of the Greek statue was usually assumed to be the ideal human face. One of its many assets was that it did not resemble the faces of rabbits, goats, apes, frogs, or any other ignoble animals. If beauty meant not looking like a beast, the Apollo Belvedere was the gold standard. Discovered in Rome around 1496, the ancient Greek statue of Apollo (dated to approximately 320 B.C.) was what art historians call "the totemic statue of High Renaissance art in Italy." (The Belvedere got its name from the villa behind the old Vatican palace where the papal families of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries housed their collection of the great marble statues of Greece and Rome.)
For the eighteenth-century philosopher Hegel, the Greek profile "far from being an outer and accidental form is the incarnation of the very idea of beauty itself.... Thanks to it we have an embodiment of a facial conformation in which the expression of the spiritual takes pride of place." Hegel based this on the fact that Greeks had a prominent nose bridge, which in profile traced a continuous line from the thinking centers (the forehead) to the face, and thereby focused visual attention on the upper rather than the lower, sensual parts of the face.
Eighteenth-century Dutch artist and anatomist Petrus Camper invented a device to measure facial angles from profiles. He measured the face horizontally from the ear to the lip, and vertically from the most protruding point of the forehead to the most forward point of the upper jaw (usually at the upper lip). The intersection of these points was the facial angle. Camper's facial angle became the first widely used measurement system for comparing the skulls of different races. But Camper's intention was to try to quantify beauty. He took for granted that the statues of Greek antiquity represented the ideal of beauty. As he wrote, "We will not find a single person who does not regard the head of Apollo or Venus as possessing a superior beauty, and who does not view these heads as infinitely superior to those of the most beautiful men and women." Camper found that the ancient Greek statues had facial angles of 100 degrees (relatively straight profiles) while most human profiles range from 70 to 90 degrees. Since monkeys, dogs, and other animals have facial angles lower than humans and Greek statues had angles slightly higher, Camper thought he had found the angle of beauty. As he wrote, "What constitutes a beautiful face? I answer a disposition of traits such that the facial line makes an angle of 100 degrees with the horizontal." Measuring the skulls of different races, he found that facial angles increased from orangutans and monkeys to African blacks to orientals to the European man and finally to the Greek statue, making European man the closest to the beauty ideal and African man the furthest. A Swiss pastor, Johann Caspar Lavater, published his own set of facial angles, again in ascending order, this time from the frog to the Apollo Belvedere, again placing European man closest to the ideal of beauty.
By such analogies and comparisons, European men put forth the idea that European men and women were the most beautiful of humans. Since their facial angles approximated those of the Greek gods, so did their character and intelligence. The work had a tribal imperative and was used to justify cultural or racial superiority. Of course, the profile of the Apollo Belvedere is not more beautiful than the profile of a handsome African man, appearance is not reality, analogies do not prove anything, and racism is a clear example of a skin-deep fallacy. Scientists now agree that the concept of race explains very little about human variation. Beneath the skin, less than seven percent of genetic differences can be explained by belonging to one race or another. There is more genetic diversity within races than between them. Dissimilar appearances can cloak sisters under the skin, and similar appearances may cover widely divergent personalities. Racism is real, race may not be.
These days, we know that it is difficult to get a read on moral character, intelligence, or soul just by looking. If Mother Teresas always looked like Miss Universe, the world would be just and appearance would be an easy read. But no one has figured out the visible signs of saint or sinner. It is sometimes convenient to liken a human feature to an easily visualized animal one, such as doe eyes, but we use it as a visual not moral descriptor. Knowledge about personality and character is something that we gather slowly from what a person does to us and to others. We say now that physical beauty is but "skin deep" and that "pretty is as pretty does."
But we don't always act that way. What pretty does is often seen in a forgiving light. We are quick to leap to judgments of the unbeautiful, imagining for instance that fat people are lazy or greedy. We know that the link between beauty and goodness is spurious, but our actions are not always guided by conscious reason.
The Injustice of the Given
Whether or not the beautiful is good, beauty seems to bring out goodness in others. In one psychologist's study, seventy-five college men were shown photographs of women, some of whom were very attractive and others less so. They were asked to select the person they would be most likely do the following for: help move furniture, loan money, donate blood, donate a kidney, swim one mile to rescue her, save her from a burning building, and even jump on a terrorist hand grenade. The men were most likely to volunteer for any of these altruistic and risky acts for a beautiful woman. The only thing they seemed reluctant to do for her was loan her money.
Answers to psychologists' questions about hypothetical situations may have little to do with real behavior. But when put to the test, at least in small ways, people seem to confirm what the college boys say. In several staged experiments, psychologists have tested people's honesty and altruism toward good-looking and plain-looking people and find that their good deeds are not doled out evenly. For example, in one study a pretty or an ugly woman approaches a phone booth and asks the occupant, "Did I leave my dime there?" (There is a dime in the phone booth.) Eighty-seven percent of people return the dime to the good-looking woman, but only sixty-four percent return the dime to the ugly woman. In another study, two women stand by a car with a flat tire in the roadway: the good-looking one gets rescued first.
People are more likely to help attractive people even if they don't like them. In another staged experiment, an attractive or unattractive woman gave men compliments on their work or criticized it. Afterward, the men were asked how much they liked the woman. They particularly liked the attractive woman who praised them, and liked least the attractive woman who criticized them. But asked to volunteer more time, the men gave it to the good-looking woman, even when he didn't like her. As the psychologists wrote, her attractiveness attracted. Attractiveness attracts even in situations where there is no chance of actually meeting the recipient of one's favors. In yet another study, completed (bogus) college applications were left in Detroit airports. A note attached to them suggested that the applications were given to fathers who had accidentally left them behind. Each had the identical application answers, but each had a different photograph attached. People were much more likely to mail the applications of the better-looking applicants.
Interestingly, people are less likely to ask good-looking people for help. This is particularly true for men with good-looking women, but it is also true for both men and women with good-looking members of their own sex (it is less true for women asking good-looking men for help). But as evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have shown, people keep a watchful eye on who has done what for whom. Our efforts to please good-looking people with no expectation of immediate reward or reciprocal gesture are one way we reinforce beauty as a form of status, not unlike being born into the nobility or inheriting wealth. Beauty represents what writer Jim Harrison has called "the injustice of the given."
The high status of beauty is one reason why it is a subject fraught with such heated emotions. Didn't democratic societies ban the aristocracy and level the playing field? Perhaps this is also why we are so easily persuaded by the idea that beauty is attainable through the usual democratic means hard work and money. If it confers elite status, then we must make it an elitism based on effort and achievement, not a priori advantage. Historian Lois Banner has chronicled "the democratic rhetoric of beauty experts in the early twentieth century," which insisted that "every woman could be beautiful." She suggests that such campaigns were dangerous for women because they held up an unattainable ideal. Estee Lander's successful campaigns included her exhortations that "there are no homely women only careless women ... you have to want it [beauty] very much and then help it along with some well-chosen products." Paradoxically, the arguments of twentieth-century beauty experts have often unwittingly linked beauty with goodness. Women who were dissatisfied with what they saw in the mirror now felt not only unattractive but lazy, inept, or lacking the inner beauty which was supposed to shine forth with good habits and good concealer.
Beauty as Status
As we walk down the street, we negotiate space with other people. We carry a small territory with us, a protected turf that surrounds us whether we are sitting or standing, and upon which others cannot trespass without permission. Move in too close, and people get uncomfortable. Tall people have bigger territories: their sheer size intimidates people. When people are asked to approach a stranger and stop when they no longer feel comfortable, they will stop about two feet away from a tall person (22.7 inches to be exact) but less than a foot (9.8 inches) from a short person. Very attractive people of any size are given big personal territories; they carry their privileges around their persons.
Good-looking people are more likely to win arguments and persuade others of their opinions. People divulge secrets to them and disclose personal information. Basically, people want to please the good-looking, making conciliatory gestures, letting themselves be persuaded, telling them informative gossip, and backing off from them, literally, as they walk down the street.
But perhaps people are awed by their confidence and assertiveness, not their looks. Perhaps they persuade by intelligence or force of personality. In fact, attractive people do tend to be more at ease socially, more confident, and less likely to fear negative opinions than are unattractive people. They are more likely to think that they are in control of their lives rather than pawns of fate and circumstance, and they are apt to be more assertive. In a particularly interesting study, people were asked to participate in an interview with a psychologist. During the course of the interview the psychologist was interrupted by a colleague and excused herself. If the interviewee waited patiently, the interruption would last ten minutes. Attractive people waited three minutes and twenty seconds on average before demanding attention. Less attractive people waited an average of nine minutes. There was no difference in how the two groups rated their own assertiveness. Attractive people merely felt entitled to better treatment.
We know that behavior often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, it would not be surprising if beauties, who are deferred to, agreed with, and granted favors, automatically assumed the privileges of power. Even ten minutes of being treated the way beautiful people are treated can bring changes in behavior. Psychologists set up a study in which women and men talked on the telephone for ten minutes; during this time the men were told to try to get to know the women. Each man had been given a Polaroid snapshot of the woman they were supposed to be talking with. In their mind's eye, the phone companion was beautiful or ugly. In fact, all men were talking to the same woman. The really interesting part of this study is that the woman became more animated and confident in conversations with men who believed her to be good-looking. The men were trying harder, and were bolder, sexier, and funnier, and they brought out the bold and sexy in her. She sounded attractive when she was presumed to be attractive.
Status is a prized commodity that we confer on the beautiful. As we will see, we believe that the beautiful have many things that we want, and that they may be in a position to help us get them too.
To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected
We expect attractive people to be better at everything from piloting a plane to being good in bed. We guess that their marriages are happier, their jobs are better, and that they are mentally healthy and stable. For practically any positive quality you can think of, people will assume that good-looking people have more of it, do it better, and enjoy it more.
The expectations start in childhood. Teachers in four hundred classrooms in Missouri were given a report card of a fifth-grade student, including grades, evaluation of attitude, work habits, and attendance. The only variant was the attached photograph of the child an attractive or unattractive boy or girl. Despite the wealth of information about behavior and performance, looks swayed opinions. The teachers expected the good-looking children to be more intelligent and more sociable and popular with their peers. What is more disturbing is that good-looking students often do get better grades. When the subjective aspects of grading are removed, and grades are based solely on standardized tests, the advantage disappears.
Interestingly, despite the "dumb blonde" stereotype, people presume that attractive people of both sexes are more, not less, intelligent than unattractive people. This is particularly true for males, but the effect holds for females as well. It helps to explain the finding of several different studies that the better looking the fill-in-the-blank (painter, essayist, student) is, the more positively his or her work is evaluated. In these studies, looks help most when the work is not of high quality, but they can even give an extra boost to good work. Social psychologists call this a halo effect, after the luminous aura that surrounds revered figures.
And truth be told, we still have a hard time thinking that something evil dwells in these temples. Karen Dion, one of the pioneer researchers on the effects of attractiveness, asked adults to consider hypothetical seven-year-olds who step on dogs' tails or throw icy snowballs at other children's heads. When a good-looking child is depicted doing these things, adults give the child the benefit of the doubt and presume that the child is having a bad day or is the victim of circumstance. The adults don't believe that he or she has done this before or will do it again. The unattractive children are more likely to be eyed suspiciously as possible future juvenile delinquents.
Good-looking adults are more likely to get away with anything from shoplifting to cheating on exams to committing serious crimes. They are less likely to get reported (they aren't being eyed suspiciously), and if they are reported, they are less likely to get accused or penalized. Law enforcement officials, juries, and judges don't just judge the current circumstances and the person's past behavior but they take a look and think: Could she have done that? Just as teachers can take the same report cards and come to different predictions based on appearance, so can judges and juries. This effect is particularly strong for attractive females.
Occasionally good looks can backfire, and when they do it tells us something about the expectations we have for good-looking people. Swindling is the crime of defrauding a person of money or property. The stereotyped swindler is a smooth talker (usually male) offering get-rich-quick schemes, or the femme fatale of many a film noir whose mercenary motives are opaque (or irrelevant) to her besotted target. If accused of this crime, the good-looking fare worse than the less attractive. They look good enough to pull it off, and they are punished for abusing the power of their beauty.
Beauty is an advantage in all realms of life. But it is important to realize the magnitude of the advantage. In most studies, attractive people have an edge but it is small to moderate rather than large. Most studies compare great-looking people with very unattractive people, whereas people tend to hover near the average. The studies say as much about the disadvantages of being below average in looks as about the advantages of beauty. In fact, the evidence is that the penalty for ugliness might be even greater than the reward for beauty.
But in the sexual domain the importance of looks cannot be overestimated. People expect attractive people to be very popular, socially confident, and at ease. They also expect them to be sexually exciting, responsive, experienced, and adventurous. Men expect beautiful women to have a high sex drive and prefer variety in sex. People assume that good lookers of both sexes have more dates, fall in love more often, and start their sex lives earlier.
As we've seen, the expectations for social confidence and social ease are true, even if they are just self-fulfilling prophecies. Even four-year-olds and ten-year-olds desire good-looking children as friends. Once they reach dating age, both good-looking men and women are more popular with the opposite sex. They have more dates, more opportunities for dalliance, and they get more attention. Friendship is another story. Good-looking women in particular encounter trouble with other women. They are less liked by other women, even other good-looking women.
Imagine that you are talking to an attractive stranger when a much more attractive stranger enters the room. Chances are, the person you are talking to suddenly looks a shade less attractive. Psychologists call this a "contrast effect," and men seem more susceptible to it than women are. After staring at photographs of very attractive faces, men show less desire to date an average-looking woman. Exposure to extremely beautiful bodies in visual erotica can wreak havoc on some men's judgment. In one study, men shown pictures of women's beautiful bodies in erotica rated a previously attractive nude as less exciting. Some men even claimed to be less in love with their wives! Although it is unlikely that love can be shaken by a glance at a photograph, the men's responses suggest the temporary power of an image of a stunning body. We have a chance to calibrate faces against real-life faces all the time. Everyone sees hundreds and even thousands of faces, but most people have not seen hundreds of nude bodies. Given a much smaller database, nude or minimally clothed bodies in the media may get disproportionate representations in our minds and skew our ideas of the possible or even of the average.
This may be one reason why women often dislike it when their mates indulge in watching pornography. It most certainly is one reason why beautiful women have a tougher time holding on to female friends. We try to control our social environment to make ourselves look good, or at least better than the other choices, and no one wants her own light dimmed by having a beacon next to her.
In the guppy world, males are the brightly colored and ornamented sex. Male guppies prefer to hang around with other males who will not outshine them. Scientists rigged up a setting in which male guppies could either swim where they wanted (which was next to females) or were kept away from the females by an invisible barrier. Other males watched this and assumed that the males who were swimming far away had been rejected by the female. Later, the observing males were put into the water to roam freely. They spent more of their time around the "rejected" male, presumably hoping to profit by the comparison. They hoped to produce a contrast effect.
What about the sexual mystique of beauty? It turns out that good-looking men and women are more sexually experienced and engage in a greater variety of sexual activities. Both good-looking men and women begin to have sex earlier, although for women this does not necessarily translate into more partners. Studies by scientists Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad suggest that good-looking men are more likely to bring their women to orgasm, and to simultaneous orgasm. Intriguing, yes. Sorry to drop it now but we will return to this in Chapter 6 where we discuss the many advantages of the symmetrical body. All of this suggests that the good-looking may indeed be having more fun, at least in bed.
Good-looking people don't have any monopoly on great sexual technique. But they do have more opportunities, and without much effort they've already engaged the fantasies of their partners. As we've seen from the behavior of women who, during ten-minute phone calls, suddenly act more alluring, better performance can easily be coaxed by a partner. It is not uncommon for people to fantasize about sex with a more beautiful stranger while making love to their partners, probably for this very reason.
One of the interesting upshots of work on stereotypes of the attractive is that these stereotypes exist for both sexes. Beauty is an advantage for men as well as for women, although the magnitude is greater for women. We are told that women bear the burden of appearances when, in fact, so do men. But there are some differences that are not small in magnitude. One is that men make many more sexual inferences about women based on appearance than women do. Men are much more likely to believe that attractive women are sexually permissive, high in sex drive, and sexually confident. Women aren't so sure based on appearances alone.
The men's belief may actually be strategic: a sexually permissive woman with a high sex drive might be receptive to advances, and this belief may make it easier for men to approach her. Men have other such strategies. For example, men are much more likely to read friendly gestures as signs of sexual interest and attempts at seduction than women are. Men want to be more promiscuous than women, and often desire more variety in partners. If they believe that they are picking up signals of interest from a woman (whether or not they are) they will be more likely to approach her. Even if this opens up opportunities for sexual contact a small fraction of the time, such beliefs would give the men who hold them a reproductive advantage.
People have high expectations of beautiful adults and children, men and women. But as we see, beauty plays a particularly important role in sex and romance. We will look more closely at this advantage. And after cataloguing the privileges of beauty, it may seem silly to ask if beauty makes us any happier but I'll pose the question anyway.
Meet the Author
Nancy Etcoff lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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This book is a great read. It was given to me by a woman my mother works for. She told me that her daughter had read it and found it fascinating, and a must read for any girl who has ever felt alientated by her beauty. She thought that because I was very pretty like her daughter, I might also enjoy it. This seemed strange at the time, but she was right. As a relatively attractive young woman growing up in a skin deep society, the book spoke to me. It addresses the reasons behind our obsession with appearance, where is originated, and why it is so persistent. The book makes our society's preoccupation with looks seem more like an inherited inevitability than a hurtful cultural flaw. If you're at all interested in the field of psychology this book provides great insight into the study of human behavior as it relates to the quest for beauty. It is at once a fun, light read and an insightful survey of human motives.
Fyi im twelve and i luv this book
This is by a woman who describes makeup as being part of an "extended phenotype" which is a flagrant abuse of genetics.
The title of this book caught my eye. As an avid non-fiction reader, I decided to pick it up. Was hooked at the first chapter. The author makes a fun and fascinating read about how the beauty of others effects us. No boring facts and figures, but real life experiments that yield suprising results. I was shocked to learn how much someones appearance changes our own attitudes/reactions. If you ever wanted to know why that guy that looks like Brad Pitt suddenly turns you into a bumbling idiot, you should read this!