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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.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. jahel queralt lange

    Thanks Alex for this very interesting discussion on a bizarre research. I would like to question two thinks, though.

    Firstly, you mention that more attractive people get, because of their attractiveness, two sorts of benefits: preferential treatment and greater encouragement. I agree that the latter can have a positive impact on the development of one’s capacities but I am not sure whether we can say the same about the former. Preferential treatment might make someone lazy and less willing to develop his capacities because it makes him think that he can get thinks effortlessly.

    Secondly, those who are physically attractive can be seen as sexual objects and that collective perception creates an ethos that is clearly unfavorable to the development of intellectual capacities. When beautiful individuals identify with this image of themselves as sexual objects, as they often do, their beauty spoils them instead of making them smarter.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jahel. You may be right that preferential treatment of physically more attractive people can sometimes create a "spoilt brat effect" that backfires on the attractive person. I am not convinced, however, that this is the typical outcome of being treated more favourably by others.

    Your second point is an important one. I guess good-looking women in particular might be at risk of being stereotyped as sexual objects, which might make it more difficult for them to choose intellectual pursuits and also to be taken seriously when they try to emphasize their intellectual capacities over their physical attributes. This might constitute a different form of bias than the halo effect, and might to some extent counteract it. But even if that is the case, it is still compatible with the halo effect having the consequences suggested above.

  3. I've seen Kanazawa speak (QUB seminar). He is an amazingly persuasive speaker, with evidence and reasoning to counter every argument. And the QUB grad students did grill him. Like my research, a lot is based on subjective inpterpretation in a field we all think we know something about. But unlike my research, he seems to be able to parse and quantify subjectivity in such as way that makes his arguments not just logical, but obvious. Attend a lecture by him if you can.

  4. Could there have been selective breeding in the past? If over a number of generations intelligent people had been able to attract physically attractive mates by virtue of their material success, then eventually the two characteristics would develop a positive correlation, to the extent that either intelligence or physical beauty is measurable. of course.

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