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The Unfairness of Unattractiveness

In the job market being attractive is advantageous. According to economist Daniel Hamermesh, an attractive man can earn, over a life time, $230,000 more than an unattractive one[1]. Attractive solicitors raise more money for charities[2].  Very attractive individuals are less likely to engage in criminal activities, whereas unattractive ones have higher propensity for crime[3]. Attractive criminals are punished less severely than unattractive ones[4].

Both children and adults judge attractive people to be more helpful, more intelligent, and more friendly than their unattractive counterparts[5].

Cute infants elicit stronger motivation for care-taking than less cute ones[6]. Moreover, cute infants are rated as most adoptable[7].

Adults have higher expectations of attractive kids compared to non attractive ones[8] and mothers of attractive infants tend to be more affectionate, playful, and attentive when interacting with their children than mothers of less attractive infants[9]. Teachers expect better performances from attractive students[10]. Transgressions of unattractive children are judged more negatively than transgressions of attractive ones[11].

Being attractive is also an advantage in romantic relationships[12] as there is a positive correlation  between physical attractiveness and dating [13][14].

One response to unfairness is to get people to stop discriminating unfairly. This might work for some domains, such as employment where interviews could be conducted blind. But it won’t be possible to counteract all the potential downsides.

We can’t require people to like or fall in love with people they find unattractive. There are at least two possible responses:

  1. Assist people to find attractive what they currently find unattractive
  2. Assist people to be more attractive to those who currently find them unattractive

Both of these are reasonable solutions. The second is cosmetic enhancement.

While many people find cosmetic enhancement a vain, superficial endeavour that perpetuates some “beauty myth”, it is a reasonable part of a solution to the problem of unfairness of unattractiveness. Of all the types of enhancement available to us, this is perhaps one of the most commonly used already; many people practice cosmetic enhancement to varying degrees (make-up, hair removal, hair dye, and a number of surgeries). But how it should be employed, what limits there should be and the norms around it are nevertheless yet to be fully explored.

Cosmetic enhancement is perhaps seen as more trivial and a simple matter of personal preference than other types of enhancement, which may be more related to getting ahead in society (cognitive enhancement for a better career/ socio-economic status in society, moral enhancement for a society better suited to co-operate to achieve common goals). This might mean there is less of a call for banning or limiting access to this kind of enhancement for equality reasons, or equally that on the other side of the debate there is less of a call for providing access to such enhancements to help people’s lives go better. It is simply deemed unimportant. But the above research shows that it might have more in common with other kinds of enhancement than we think. When it comes to how our lives go, factors that we tell ourselves should not have an effect, or that should be trivial, can nevertheless turn out to be important on the data. How we respond to that is currently an open ethical question.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Francesca Minerva for the references

[1] D.Hamermesh, Beauty Pays: why Attractive People are more Successful, Princeton UniversityPress, 2013.

[2] C.Landry, A.Lange et al.  (2006) Toward An Understanding Of The Economics of Charity: Evidence From A Field Experiment, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, v121(2,May), 747-782.

[3] N.Mocan, E.Tekin, Ugly Criminals, The Review of Economics and Statistics, February 2010, 92(1): 15–30.

[4] M. G. Efran, ‘‘The Effect of Physical Appearance on the Judgment of Guilt, Interpersonal Attraction, andSeverity of Recommended Punishment in a Simulated Jury Task,’’Journal of Research in Personality 8 (1974): pp. 45–54

[5]  A. M. Griffin, J. H. Langlois, Stereotype Directionality and Attractiveness Stereotyping: Is Beauty Good or is Ugly Bad?, Soc Cogn. 2006 April ; 24(2): 187–206.

[6]  M. L. Glocker, D.D. Langleben et al. Baby Schema in Infant Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Motivation for Caretaking in Adults, Ethology, 115 (2009) 257–263.

[7] Volk, A. & Quinsey, V. L. 2002: The influence of infant facial cues on adoption preferences. Hum. Nat. 13, 437—455.

[8] Stephan, C.W., & Langlois, J.H. (1984). Baby beautiful: Adult attributions of infant competence as a function of infant attractiveness. Child Development, 55, 576-585.

[9] Langlois, J. H., Ritter, J. M., Casey, R. J. & Sawin, D. B. 1995: Infant attractiveness predicts maternal behaviors and attitudes. Dev. Psychol. 31, 464—472.

[10] J. Rich, ‘‘Effects of Children’s Physical Attractiveness on Teacher’s Evaluations’’ Journal of Educational Psychology 67 (1975): pp. 599–609.

[11] Dion, K. K. Physical attractiveness and evaluationsof children’s transgressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972, 24, 207-213.

[12] E. Walster et al., ‘‘Importance of Physical Attractiveness in Dating Behavior,’’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4 (1966): pp. 508–516

[13] Brislin, R. W., & Lewis, S. A. (1968). Dating and physical attractiveness: Replication. Psychological Reports, 22, 976.

[14] Lynn, M., and B. A. Shurgot. ‘‘Responses to Lonely Hearts Advertisements: Effects of Reported Physical Attractiveness, Physique, and Coloration.’’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 10 (1984): 349–357.

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11 Comment on this post

  1. Well… this isn’t really about fairness or unfairness. It’s really about equality. The facts demonstrate that attractiveness affects inequality, but you could say the same about anything. The unfairness of a competitive streak in the Olympics. The unfairness of professionalism in successful relationships. The unfairness of height in basketball.

    Of course, you could also extend this to things which are socially biased such as … The unfairness of being born black in Apartheid Africa. The unfairness of being a Jew in Nazi Germany etc.

    The problem with the remit of the title is that you seem to have already come to your (highly subjective) conclusion and are now using the evidence at hand to support it. Unfairness is a very intangible idea when it applies to something, which people have no control over. It’s a convenient crutch to lean on to justify failing on some very specific dimension, and already builds in a bunch of excuses, which as people we love to use.

    You see so-called ugliness as something to be fixed, but this is ingrained in our psyches. Your two responses to fixing this ‘problem’, is to repair the ways that bigots see beauty, or to help ugly people become more externally attractive. This is the real problem here. There is no problem with being ugly in other than a very few frames of reference.

    1. I think the author’s point is that a very narrow failing (ugliness) has far reaching (and unfair) consequences. For instances, ugliness in dating would be an issue of inequality because romance is a test of attractiveness. However, when ugliness is an disadvantage for raises (for jobs where ugliness does not affect the quality of their work) there seems to be a issue of fairness because raises should be based on performance, not attraction. Therefore, deciding if it is unfair or unequal would depend on the context, but I would assume in most issues it would be unfair.

      1. Looking back on the article, I’m reading too much into it, so I’ll just say this is my counter point instead

  2. “Of all the types of enhancement available to us, this is perhaps one of the most commonly used already; many people practice cosmetic enhancement to varying degrees (make-up, hair removal, hair dye, and a number of surgeries)”

    Something I could be worth discussing and which ties to your paragraph below: many people seem to have no serious objections to make-up and temporary cosmetic changes, yet object to cosmetic surgery using terms such as ‘shallow’ and ‘fake’ (and of course ‘vain’).

    I would argue that it’s actually the opposite – plastic surgery being a permanent change, it’s actually ‘truer’ than temporary modifications, as it’s actually changing the person’s body (though not their DNA).
    Surgery isn’t about hiding unattractive features, but actually removing them. How is this shallow or fake?
    So I feel the ‘cosmetic surgery makes one unauthentic’ argument is pretty bad (though some believe there is the issue of misrepresenting your DNA – I believe papers have been written about this).

    Of course can still criticize plastic surgery for being risky and expensive, but I feel that’s actually another argument in favor of seeing cosmetic surgery as actual personal change – the people who have it done know the risks and costs, yet do it anyway.

    And there is some suggesting that contrary to the popular belief, most people who have this kind of surgery are mostly happy with the result, rather than becoming addicted to it and trying to reach some unrealistic, unattainable physical ideal.

    1. This is more an interesting point than a silver bullet, but some studies correlate certain features with personality, which the altering of which might be unauthentic. For instance, face width has been associated with aggression (

      Now of course this might not be true of all features, (I can’t find any papers disproving any associations which indicates to me a positive result bias), but let us make a smaller assumption which seems to be anecdotally true: people make assumptions of personality based on how people look. If we assume this, it would imply some surgeries are unathentic while others are more authentic. For instance, when botux is used to seem younger, it seems unathentic because age reflects a large part of people’s personality, e.g. maturity. However, if this same individual gets botux because they don’t feel old, e.i. they still feel energetic or naive, then it would seem to be more authentic than not getting surgery.

      In the case of ugliness, I assume very few people say it is a fair reflection of themselves, and so plastic cosmetic surgery would be authentic.

      1. That’s an interesting link, thank. Not the first time I read of things like that. I’m not surprised by personality-physique correlations, but I don’t think they are morally relevant, at least not in the way you seem imply.

        Yes, people make assumptions of personality based on how other people – but is that actually a good thing even if there’s sometimes a significant chance they might be wrong?

        Does the expectation that age equals (or at least signals) maturity actually create an ethical duty to ‘look the part’?

        I disagree and feel that the fact we associate a certain look with some specific mental characteristics creates no such duty; the onus is on the person doing the judging.
        They are free to do that in their own minds, but they don’t have a right to complain that they were ‘deceived’ just because their assumptions prove wrong.

        In fact I believe that people not matching the looks-based stereotypes can be a good thing, because it can push people to be less shallow in judging others by increasing their chance of being wrong.

        It’s also extremely ironic someone would to use ‘we should be be able to correctly judge a person by their looks’ (I hope that doesn’t count as a strawman) as an argument against plastic surgery, considering the usual criticism is that it’s shallow!”.
        So is the issue that it’s ‘shallow’, or that it makes inconvenient for *other people* to be shallow?
        Not saying you are using this kind of argument, but it’s too obvious a consideration to pass on.

        Also, I don’t think it would be especially surprising if in some cases altering the way you look could eventually change your personality (other than the obvious greater self-confidence). Do people who get botox often end acting stereotypical ‘younger’?
        In that case ‘authenticity’ as you seem to define it would not be violated.

  3. The feminist position is missing from the post, although it is certainly relevant here. The general feminist rejection of cosmetic enhancement derives from the conviction, that it is done by women for the benefit of men. Put another way, a feminist would tend to believe that if there were no men on this planet there would be no cosmetics either, and no cosmetic surgery. The implied feminist response, to inequalities derived from differences in attractiveness, is that women, left to themselves and in the absence of patriarchy, would not find any other woman ‘unattractive’. So there would be no problem. Whether that would really be the case, in a hypothetical all-female society, is not possible to prove or disprove, but that does not make the feminist position any less logical.

    1. That’s *A* feminist position, not *THE*. I doubt it’s the only one.

      There are no all-female societies to study, but there are many women who use cosmetic enchantment (both surgery and make-up) and claim that they are doing it for themselves rather than men.
      I think arguing that they are being subconsciously influenced by the patriarchy and yes, they are doing that for the men despite explicitly denying that is the case is extremely patronizing.

      Also, both lesbian women & men (both gay & straight) practice cosmetic enchantment, despite presumably caring much less about the beauty standards of straight men for women.

      It is true that women are more likely to have their worth be judged based on their appearance, but isn’t it obviously more complicated than beauty standards being intrinsically patriarchal?
      Which I hope is a fair summary of the above position.

      Last – aren’t there studies suggesting that both babies & nonhuman animals have a preference for traditionally beautiful humans?
      If that is the case, that’s one argument in favore of beauty not totally socially constructed.

  4. Davide – I don’t agree that women are more likely to have their worth judged based on appearence. Men are just as likely. A man is judged in terms of height, physical profile, body shape, and the hidden but omnipresent factor that is penis size. Doesn’t all of that come into a a man’s appearence?

    1. I’m not saying men aren’t judged, I’m saying they are far less likely to be judged for these things when they are completely irrelevant to the context.

      For example, politics- people are very likely to comment on a female candidate’s appearance, but far less likely to do that for a male, and when they do it’s generally because it’s quite unusual.

      When there is focus on man’s appearance, it’s generally because they have an unusual feature, such as Trump’s hair or Chris Christie’s obesity, to use US politics as an example.
      For women, this happens most of the time – there’s a lot of focus (mostly negative) on the way Hillary looks, despite her not looking strange at all for a woman of her age.

  5. The author makes some good points. In particular, he brings our honest attention to the fact that we are not all equally beautiful and to the fair point that not all people necessarily should be regarded as being equally beautiful. These are sobering words, much needed in the consideration of the noise surrounding many sociological conversations about social justice, prejudice, women’s and LGBT rights, fat power and “lookism,” etc.

    The problems that I have with the article have to do with the authors leap from a defense of the reality of beauty to the topic of cosmetic surgery. And also the grouping together of all aesthetic and beauty aspirations together under the same umbrella as cosmetic surgery. It strikes me that the author views beauty as a single thing that can be plotted on a linear scale. In reality, there is not one beauty but many separate and distinct beauties.

    An “enhancement” is an increase in the extent of something that is already there. For example, accentuating the almond shape of one’s eyes with an eyeliner or the wearing of a dress that accentuates the feminine form of the body. A “modification” is a change that intends to make something fundamentally different from what it was. A person should seek to find beauty in themselves and not in the rejection of themselves. Questions about the mental health aspects of getting a surgical procedure, and the ethics of cosmetic surgeons who practice such procedures are best answered in the context of the particular nature and purpose of the particular enhancements or modifications.

    It won’t do to simply say that any cosmetic change, whatever it be and for whatever reason, is necessarily good simply because it serves the purpose of helping the individual to achieve social acceptance and popularity.

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