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This Could Get Ugly

Looks matter, maybe more than we know.

By Kevin Cool

Let's try a thought experiment.

Suppose you are a hiring manager at a medium-sized corporation. You are trying to decide between two job candidates whose experience, credentials and skills seem equal. But there's a hitch: Because of travel cost and logistical barriers, you interviewed both candidates over the phone rather than in person. As a result, you have no idea what either of them looks like. How do you decide? Would it make a difference if one were more attractive than the other?

I realize this is an imperfect example: An in-person interview can provide insights about job suitability that have nothing to do with appearance. But if looks were removed from the equation, what would be the effect?

People considered attractive are conferred with all sorts of advantages, some of which—such as having an edge over similarly qualified job applicants—have been compellingly documented. In her book, The Beauty Bias, Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode explores this terrain, which inspired our cover story.

Our culture obsesses over appearance. Billions are spent every year on diet programs, cosmetics and physical "enhancements." As Rhode's book points out, the fastest growing medical specialty in the United States is cosmetic surgery. And mass media feeds the obsession with a relentless barrage of images that celebrate the buff, the tall and the classically featured.

In some industries, being good-looking is not just an advantage; it's practically a prerequisite. Hollywood actors are displayed on 50-foot screens for hours at a time, so a handsome face and good skin could be viewed as legitimate job considerations. But if movie-star looks affect transactions in everyday life, the implications are troubling. Brad Pitt, for example, is generally considered a model of male beauty, at least when he isn't growing rodent-resembling appendages from his chin. If Pitt were a carpet salesman or an insurance adjuster, would his looks advance his career over other, plainer people? The scholarly evidence says yes.

We ascribe value to certain physical attributes based on—what? Is the appeal of a curved hip or broad shoulder innate, the product of evolutionary influence? Or is it the result of cultural conditioning? Our article examines those questions, while also discussing the possibility that, regardless of its origin, beauty bias can sabotage attempts to hire, promote and reward people based on merit.

For example, we learn that men with square jaws are considered to be potential leaders among military types. On the face of it, this seems ludicrous. How could the shape of a person's jawbone possibly determine his or her character? But it's not so far-fetched if one burrows into the psychology of an established bias. A square-jawed young officer might actually become more competent and confident than his weak-chinned peers because others believe he will.

Not everyone will agree with Rhode's assertions, but the ideas she presents are interesting and provocative. As Rhode notes, beauty may be skin deep, but the effects on those who don't have it are more than superficial.

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