Are attractive people really more trustworthy?

Imagine the following scenario: you’re sharing a table with a stranger at a coffee shop. You’ve exchanged a few pleasantries with the person but not much else. You need to go to the bathroom and would like to leave your laptop and bag at the table while you’re gone. Can you trust your new, and perhaps only temporary, acquantaince not to walk off with your stuff? Most people would base such a decision on “a gut feeling.” But, upon what basis? Back in 2006, researchers from Rice University examined a factor that might play a role in whether you might feel comfortable sashaying to the john sans laptop: the person’s attractiveness. Basically, is she/he hot or not?

Past research has shown that people exhibit considerable levels of trust for strangers and that this trust is often made via a snap judgment based on minimal information. Psychologists at Rice were curious to know (1) if others’ attractiveness might serve as a basis for these snap judgments, (2) if these judgments were accurate and (3) if attractive people are the beneficiaries of others’ heightened trust for them.

Upon arriving for their experimental session, participants posed for four photos, of which they picked one which would be used in a series of trust games. The trust game worked as such: A participant was given $10. Seated in front of a computer, he was then shown pictures of other students, one at at time, to whom he was to give part, or all, of the $10. The recipient would receive triple whatever the participant chose to give, and would then return as much as he wanted back to the participant. For example, if the participant gave $10, then the recipient would get $30. If he wanted to be fair, the recipient could give $15 back to the participant, leaving them both with $15 (the best and most equitable solution). Conversely, the recipient could return nothing to the participant, leaving him with $0. The amount given by the participant really depends on how much he trusts the recipient to return an equitable amount to him. Trust can then be measured by the amount the participant chooses to give to the recipient. After playing the trust games, participants rated all of the photos of other students on a number of different traits, including attractiveness.

So, did participants trust good looking people more? The beauties made out, receiving more from participants, on average, then their less good looking peers. But were participants correct to trust good looking people more? Yes, they were. Attractive people seemed to reciprocate with higher amounts of money compared to those less attractive. But there was an interesting twist here. The more attractive the participant, the higher the recipients expectations were, such that if they didn’t receive what they expected from an “attractive” participant, they would enforce a “beauty penalty” by returning less.

These results aren’t particularly surprising, given similar research showing the multitude of ways in which attractiveness can positively modulate people’s perception of others. Given the above findings, one might be prudent to surmise that the more physically attractive candidate in a political race, all else being equal, should be more likely to win than lose. However, experimental results are mixed. On the one hand, Budesheim et al. (1994) found that physical attractiveness influenced candidate evaluation despite the provision of information about the candidate’s policy stances and personality characteristics. But, on the other hand, Rosenberg et al. (1991) found no relationship between physical attractiveness and beliefs that a candidate would make a reasonable political leader. Similarly, Sigelman and colleagues (1987) found no relationship between physical attractiveness and vote choice. And Riggle et al. (1992) found that physical attractiveness had an effect when no other candidate information was present, but failed to have an effect when policy information about the candidate was provided.

Budesheim TL, DePaola SJ. Beauty or the beast? The effects of appearance, personality, and issue information on evaluations of political candidates. Pers Soc Psych Bull 1994;20:339–348.

Rosenberg SW, Kahn S, Tran T, Lee MT. Creating a political image: Shaping appearance and manipulating the vote. Polit Behav 1991;13:345–367.

Sigelman L, Sigelman CK, Fowler C. A bird of a different feather? An experimental investigation of physical attractiveness and the electability of female candidates. Soc Psych Quart 1987;50:32–43.

Riggle ED, Ottati VC, Wyer RS, Kuklinski J, Schwarz N. Bases of political judgments: The role of stereotypic and nonstereotypic information. Polit Behav 1992;14:67–87


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