It’s a truism in workplace: Psychology studies show that physically attractive people generally have an advantage. But new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business clarifies the mechanism through which attractiveness works as an advantage in one specific scenario — job interviews. More intriguingly, the research also shows when beauty can work against you.
“It’s not always an advantage to be pretty,” says Marko Pitesa, assistant professor of management and organization. “It can backfire if you are perceived as a threat.”
A new article by Pitesa and three co-authors advances the research on attractiveness by stressing the potential future working relationship between the job interviewer and a job candidate. Curiously, in this study it was male attractiveness — not female — that made the most difference. If the interviewer anticipated working with the candidate in a cooperative way, the interviewer preferred attractive male candidates versus unattractive male candidates. However, if the interviewer perceived the candidate as a potential competitor, the interviewer discriminated in favor of unattractive men.
No such effect was found when the selection involved female candidates. That might be because attractive men are perceived as being markedly more competent, intelligent and achievement-oriented than unattractive men; on the other hand, the stereotypical relationship between attractiveness and competence for women is more mixed. The results suggest that interviewers were hardly blinded by beauty, in which case they might have preferred the more attractive person in each case. Instead, they calculated which candidate would further their own career.
“The dominant theoretical perspective in the social sciences for several decades has been that biases and discrimination are caused by irrational prejudice,” Pitesa says. “The way we explain it here, pretty men just seem more competent, so it is actually subjectively rational to discriminate for or against them.” (On a deeper level, the behavior remains irrational, and therefore discrimination, because no evidence exists of a true link between looks and competence and it clearly harms the candidates and organizations.)
The authors conducted four separate experiments. In the first, 241 adults were asked to evaluate fictional job candidates based on carefully calibrated fake qualifications and experience, in an online setting.
Men evaluated men and women evaluated women. Interviewers were primed to either think of the candidate as a future cooperator or competitor, and they were given a computer-generated headshot that was either attractive or unattractive. “Kind of attractive and slightly below average,” Pitesa clarifies — no supermodels. These carefully crafted headshots came from a set of images often used in attractiveness research.
A second experiment involved 92 people in a lab. They were asked to evaluate future competitors or partners in a quiz game, based on credentials that included sample quiz answers, and they saw similar headshots. The patterns of discrimination based on perceived self-interest were the same.
Experiment three opened up to include men interviewing women and women interviewing men. Nonetheless, there was still a preference to cooperate with the attractive man and compete against the unattractive man. (In a few cases, the authors found a “weak preference” for competing against the attractive woman.)
A final experiment used photographs of actual European business school students, vetted for attractiveness: same pattern. The authors said their research didn’t contradict previous studies finding that people prefer attractive candidates in general. But new considerations come into play when people’s own career arcs are at stake.
The authors hope the study will raise awareness at companies about when and how stereotyping occurs, leading to corrective steps. One method companies can deploy is to force people to justify their decisions rigorously, whether orally or in writing. “Stereotyping is a way of processing social stimuli more quickly,” Pitesa says. “Basically, making people think harder interferes with the act of stereotyping itself.”
“When Beauty Helps and When It Hurts: An Organizational Context Model of Attractiveness Discrimination in Selection Decisions,” by Sunyoung Lee, Marko Pitesa, Madan Pillutla, and Stefan Thau, will appear in the May issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.