Looking good

Is our concern about our appearance mere vanity – or does beauty confer social advantages?

We may feel that looks don’t matter in most walks of life, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Being tall, for example, seems to be an advantage. Short people tend to get paid less, and short men are less likely to marry (although they stay married for longer). This may reflect direct discrimination or may be the result of a small correlation between height and intelligence (probably linked to better nutrition).

As for good looks, beautiful people apparently earn more – by some estimates, they earn 5 per cent more than their average-looking colleagues. Other research suggests young, attractive patients may receive more attention in cancer care, and good-looking criminals receive lighter sentences than their less attractive peers. A number of studies have shown that in elections attractive candidates are more likely to be successful.

So are good-lookers simply better than the rest of us? There is some evidence that attractiveness is linked to intelligence, but social factors are likely to be highly influential. Attractive children are more popular and better adjusted, and teachers give attractive children higher marks, as well as having higher expectations of them. Attractive adults tend to have higher self-esteem and self-confidence.

And thanks to the ‘halo effect’, people judged highly in one area – attractiveness – are also rated positively in other ways, even without any evidence of competence in that area.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Statistics and maths, Physiology
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development