Beauty, brains, and the halo effect
by Alexandre Erler
Satoshi Kanazawa is currently in the news – see e.g. these articles in the Daily Mail, The Australian and Psychology Today. An evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, Kanazawa has just published a new article in the journal Intelligence (Kanazawa 2011) in which he argues, in continuity with his previous research, that beautiful people tend to be more intelligent than plainer ones (especially if they are men). Only now he is arguing that this correlation may be much stronger than we previously thought. His conclusion is based on data from two studies, conducted respectively in the UK and the US, which tested the intelligence of children and young teenagers but also rated their level of physical attractiveness. In the British study, attractive respondents had a mean IQ about 13 points higher than unattractive ones, and the beauty-intelligence correlation turned out to be of a similar magnitude to that between intelligence and education.
The Australian begins its coverage of Kanazawa’s research by proclaiming that “life really is unfair”. Of course they are not using that term literally: strictly speaking, only moral agents, their choices, actions and the structures that they set up (such as institutions) can be said to be fair or unfair. When the journalists from The Australian say that life is unfair, they simply mean that a certain state of affairs (the tendency for physically more attractive people to be smarter as well) is unfortunate. Yet we might want to ask ourselves whether there might not also be something unfair in the literal sense of the term about the phenomenon described by Kanazawa – assuming of course he is right about the claims he is making. To what extent might there be, not just a correlation between attractiveness and intelligence, but also a causal relationship between the two? Such a possibility is raised by the phenomenon known as the halo effect: attractive people are automatically assumed by others to possess a variety of other desirable traits, including intelligence, simply on the basis of their good looks. I am not suggesting here that the intelligence measures in the studies used by Kanazawa were skewed by the halo effect. Rather, I am pointing to the possibility that the effect might lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy: since early life, more attractive people get preferential treatment from others, and when growing up they receive a higher degree of encouragement in their learning and other endeavours. This greater degree of social support makes possible higher educational attainment, and might also help good-looking people develop higher intellectual capacities. For evidence that such a mechanism might be at work, see e.g. Zebrowitz & al., 2002; and Judge & al., 2009. (Taking a firmer stance on this issue would require me to delve into the nature vs nurture debate about intelligence, which I will not attempt to do here.)
Now if such a mechanism is indeed a reality, and (as seems plausible) has significant consequences for the lives of the people concerned, then we seem to be dealing with a case of unfairness in the literal sense of the term. We are granting preferential treatment and increased life opportunities to people who have done nothing to deserve them – people who in fact have already been spoilt by the natural lottery. Given that we are now aware of the existence of the halo effect, it seems that we have a duty, grounded in fairness, to do our best to limit its influence on us.
Unfortunately, Kanazawa’s writings and their coverage by the media do not appear very helpful for that purpose. On the contrary, they might well contribute to making matters worse. In his comments to the media, Kanazawa protests that he is not encouraging people to judge a book by its cover: “Our contention that beautiful people are more intelligent is purely scientific. It is not a prescription for how to treat or judge others.” But is such a small disclaimer really enough? Kanazawa does not caution his readers against the influence of the halo effect (he does mention the halo effect, but in another sense than the one I have in mind, and only to dismiss it as a possible explanation of the attractiveness ratings in the studies), which I think would not have been inappropriate. Rather, in his piece for Psychology Today, he writes that “If you want to estimate someone’s intelligence without giving them an IQ test, you would do just as well to base your estimate on their physical attractiveness as you would to base it on their years of education”. This might be true, but Kanazawa does not mention the fact that neither of these procedures can be regarded as reliable enough for assessing the intelligence of a person we don’t know. If one wants to make a sufficiently sound judgment on such a matter without an IQ test, then one cannot spare oneself the task of talking to the person, getting to know her and learning about her opinions, reasoning ability, what she has accomplished in life (which does include educational attainment, but is certainly not limited to that even insofar as intelligence is concerned), her social aptitudes, etc. Kanazawa’s analogy misleadingly suggests that judging the intelligence of strangers simply by relying on their degree of physical attractiveness is actually a good heuristic to use. Maybe this would be the case under circumstances in which we had to make a very quick assessment of someone’s level of intelligence based solely on visual input. But these are not circumstances most of us face very often.
I don’t want to suggest that controversial research such as Kanazawa’s should not be conducted, or that it should not be made public for fear of a pernicious impact on society. This would be ridiculous. Yet I can’t help thinking that in his attempts at drawing attention to his provocative work, Kanazawa risks reinforcing the influence of the “lookist” prejudice that already pervades Western society. We should be going in the opposite direction and promoting awareness of cognitive biases such as the halo effect (as well as suggestions of procedures to reduce their influence) among the general public. There are many good reasons for doing this, including a concern for social justice.
T. Judge & al. 2009. Does It Pay to Be Smart, Attractive, or Confident (or All Three)? Relationships Among General Mental Ability, Physical Attractiveness, Core Self-Evaluations, and Income. Journal of Applied Psychology 94 (3): 742-55.
S. Kanazawa. 2011. Intelligence and Physical Attractiveness. Intelligence 39:7-14.
L. A. Zebrowitz & al. 2002. Looking Smart and Looking Good: Facial Cues to Intelligence and their Origins. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28: 238-49.