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'Beauty penalty' at office can be harsh

Attractive people are penalised more heavily for failing to live up to expectations.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2006 12:36 IST

People are more likely to trust a pretty face, but when that trust is betrayed, the backlash can be ugly, according to a study published recently by Rice University.

Numerous studies have shown that attractive people generally make more money, get higher reviews from their supervisors and are viewed as being more intelligent and trustworthy. What surprised researchers in this study was that subjects deemed attractive also were penalised more harshly for failing to live up to expectations.

“There’s a lot of work in experimental economics and in other aspects of economics like labour economics where they find that attractive people have a beauty premium,” said Catherine Eckel, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas who co-authored the study with Rice professor Rick Wilson.

“It’s kind of a pervasive thing, but the twist that we have in our paper that you don’t see in the others is this `beauty penalty,’” she said. “What we see in our data is that people have very high expectations of attractive people, and when they’re disappointed, they react.” In the study called “Judging a Book by Its Cover: Beauty and Expectations in the Trust Game,” 206 university students were asked to participate in a series of “trust games.”

Each student was given 10 “lab dollars.” Then they were told they could send any amount of the money to other students, making their choices based on photographs. The study moderators then tripled the amount sent to the recipients, who were allowed to decide how much to refund to the sender, also based only on photographs.

A separate group of students evaluated the pictures for a number of traits, including attractiveness. The researchers found that, on average, the students deemed attractive received more money and also tended to reciprocate more generously. However, ini tial recipients also expected more cash from the attractive students, and when they received less, punished them more harshly by skimping on the returned money.

“Human beings make decisions based on stereotypes, it’s like a shorthand way of making judgments, and when we do that, we make mistakes,” Eckel said. And those mistakes can have broad social and economic conse quences.

“For example, suppose that when you have an opportunity to have an interaction with somebody, you’re more likely to pick someone who is of one type rather than another. Then as you begin to aggregate that to the whole economy, what you might see is that people of that other type don’t get as many opportunities to interact as people of the first type,” Eckel explained.

This, in turn, can reduce economic opportunities and become a mechanism for discrimination, she said.

John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said there’s no doubt perceptions of attractiveness are among many factors in workplace relationships.

“That then impacts promotions and terminations and scapegoating and other kinds of behaviours that take place every day,” he said. The good news is that workers who recognise those factors and raise what Challenger refers to as EQ, or emotional intelligence, can give them an advantage in resolving issues that might arise based on snap judgments.

“In big, complex organisations, interpersonal skill and knowledge is a great benefit to those who possess it. So if you know that people are reacting to you in an inauthentic way because of your appearance, you can seek solutions to those issues. ... Sometimes that may mean avoiding those people, sometimes it may mean coming to terms with them. It takes more effort to break down those barriers or try different solutions,” he said.

Challenger said he has seen a trend of companies working to address interpersonal relationships and build common ground among employees, through executive coaching and other programs. “So I think companies are recognising that EQ is not just innate but also can be a learned behaviour,” he said.