Rice study shows beauty has its drawbacks after all


Rice study shows beauty has its drawbacks after all

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BY B.J. ALMOND
Rice News Staff

Physical attractiveness
can make you an attractive job candidate as well —
unless you’re a female applying for a job in which
appearance is not important.

“This is
commonly referred to as the ‘beauty is beastly’
effect,” said Ken Podratz, a graduate student in psychology
who conducted research on the topic for his master’s
thesis. “For many years this effect has been cited
in research literature about bias related to physical attractiveness,
but it has rarely been replicated.”

The traditional
perception of people based on physical appearance has been
that “what is beautiful is good,” Podratz said.

“Individuals
perceived as physically attractive are also initially assumed
to possess a full gamut of positive human traits that the
unattractive are assumed to lack.”

While research
indicates that hiring decisions and job-performance assessments
seem to be biased in favor of applicants and employees who
are physically attractive, that advantage is lost when attractive
women apply for positions that are stereotypically held
by men, such as managers. The success of females who attain
high-level positions is likely to be attributed to luck
if the woman is attractive, but to ability if she is unattractive.

For his graduate
studies, Podratz set out to replicate these findings while
also correcting for key flaws in the previous research.

“One of
the problems in the earlier studies is that they used only
two to four photos for evaluation of physical attractiveness,”
he said.

Usually this
consisted of two pictures of each sex, one attractive and
one unattractive. Study participants were asked which people
they would hire.

“This was
like making generalizations about everyone based on two
research subjects,” Podratz explained.

The previous
studies also were based on a small number of jobs.

Podratz used
photos of 204 people for his study, half males and half
females. The photos were determined to be either “attractive,”
“average” or “unattractive” after being
screened by eight research participants. He also used a
list of 33 jobs, ranging from tow-truck driver to director
of finance.

More than 60
research participants ranked each job for its level of status,
its association with a particular sex and the importance
of appearance to the job.

With these research
tools in hand, Podratz asked 66 undergraduate students to
look at each picture and rate that person’s suitability
for employment for four randomly chosen jobs from the list.

As expected,
the men whose photo had been categorized as attractive were
more likely to be rated as suitable for hire than the others,
and the average-looking also had an advantage over the unattractive.

The “beauty
is beastly” effect occurred with mixed results. Female
raters, but not male raters, were less likely to hire attractive
women for jobs that were viewed as more male-oriented. But
for jobs in which physical appearance was rated low in importance,
both male and female raters were less likely to label attractive
women as suitable for hire.

“The importance
of appearance associated with a job may be a better predictor
of ‘beauty is beastly’ effects than a job’s
sex-type,” Podratz concluded. “The extent to which
the importance of appearance associated with a job is low
and the extent to which a job is male sex-typed both appear
to predict the occurrence of ‘beauty is beastly’
effects for women.”
Podratz noted that the implications of such research findings
for practice are not clear.
For jobs in which appearance is rated important, such as
those involving sales or face-to-face contact, physical
attractiveness could conceivably affect a business’s
bottom line. Forcing companies to adopt policies that have
an adverse effect on their bottom line could be viewed as
unfair, but allowing them to discriminate against individuals
based on appearance could be seen as socially unjust, Podratz
said.

“Clearly,
there is an ethical dilemma concerning where to draw the
line limiting the extent to which organizations can utilize
employment criteria that are unfair to certain individuals,”
he said.

Podratz’s
adviser for his master’s thesis was Robert Dipboye,
professor of psychology and management.

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