Do you trust more someone you find beautiful?

Do you trust more someone you find beautiful?
Do you trust more someone you find beautiful?

What makes a person beautiful has fascinated artists and scientists for centuries. Beauty is not, as is often believed, “in the eye of the beholder”, but does follow predictable rules. Symmetry and proportion play a role in what one considers beautiful, and although culture and norms shape our perception of beauty, researchers observe a broad consensus on who is considered beautiful by most people.

It is therefore not surprising that the beauty market is constantly growing (with the exception of a small decline in 2020, linked to the Covid pandemic), reaching $430 billion in revenue in 2023, according to a recent McKinsey report. The fascination with makeup or cosmetic treatments is fueled by the image of “perfect” faces that abound on social media, artificially enhanced by image processing and filters. But is all this money being spent wisely?

Privilege of beauty

To put it quickly: yes. In the current context of fierce competition in the job market, the economic benefits linked to beauty are undeniable. Numerous studies have shown that attractive people receive a bonus and earn more on average. Some high-paying professions are built around beauty (like show business), but what’s more surprising is that for almost any type of job, beauty can lead to a positive halo effect. People perceived as beautiful are expected to be more intelligent and are seen as better leaders, which influences career trajectories and opportunities.

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People perceived as beautiful would also be more likely to enjoy people’s trust, making it easier for them to get a promotion or close business deals. People with pleasant appearances are assumed to be healthier and/or to have had more positive social interactions in their past, which may influence their trustworthiness in the eyes of others.

Does being attractive make you more trustworthy?

But does this theory hold water? In our recent article, Adam Zylbersztejn, Zakaria Babutsidze, Nobuyuki Hanaki and I set out to find out. In previous studies, observers were shown different portraits and asked what they thought of these people. However, these images were often drawn from portrait databases or even computer-generated, which allows researchers to study perceptions, but not whether those beliefs are accurate. To find out, we had to develop an experimental paradigm in which we could observe the trustworthiness of different people, take photos of them, and later present those photos to other people for evaluation. Here’s how we did it.

Comprising a total of 357 volunteers, our study began in Paris in October 2019, where we asked an initial group of 76 volunteers to participate in a short experiment on decision-making. In the study, participants were randomly assigned to pairs without knowing who they were playing with. Some played a role that required trusting another individual (Group A), while others were in a position to reciprocate or break the trust they had received (Group B), knowing that they gained always breaking trust. To raise the stakes, real money was put on the table.

Participants in Group A could win up to 12 euros, but only if they trusted the other player. To do this, they were presented with the abstract choice scenario explained below, while sitting individually in a booth.

If they decided not to trust, they were sure to receive a meager payment of 5 euros for their participation in the study. On the other hand, when player A decided to trust his partner B, his fate was in the hands of player B. The latter could then act in such a way as to be trustworthy by rolling a die that promised to generate a gain of 12 euros for player A, or in an untrustworthy manner by claiming a reward of 14 euros for himself and leaving nothing for player A.

This type of game (called a “hidden action game”) has already been developed to measure individuals’ selfless trusting attitude.

It worked as follows: first, player A had to choose whether to trust player B (by saying “right”) or not to trust him (by saying “left”). Secondly, player B had to decide whether to roll a die or not.

Each player’s gain therefore depends on his own actions and/or the actions of the other player:

  • If player A chooses “left” (don’t trust), regardless of player B’s choice :

    • player A and player B both receive a gain of 5 euros;
  • If Player A chooses “Right” (Trust) and Player B chooses “Don’t Throw” :

    • player A receives nothing and player B receives 14 euros;
  • If player A chooses “right” (trust) and player B chooses “throw” :

    • When the number on the die is between 1 and 5, player A receives 12 euros and player B 10 euros;
    • When the number on the die is 6, player A receives nothing and player B receives 10 euros.

We not only observed how the participants acted in this game, but we also took photos of them with a neutral expression, before they were introduced to the task. These photos were presented to 178 participants recruited in Lyon. We first made sure that none of these individuals knew each other. We then gave the participants in Lyon the task of trying to predict how the person they saw in the photo would behave in the game. If they got it right, they were rewarded by winning more money for their participation. Finally, we showed the same photos to a third group of 103 people from Nice, in the south of France. These people were asked to rate the beauty of the faces in the photos.

Does gender come into play?

Our results confirm that people considered more beautiful by our evaluators are also judged to be much more trustworthy. This implies that in our abstract economic exchange, beautiful people are more likely to enjoy the trust of others. However, when we study actual behavior, we find that beautiful people are no more or less trustworthy than other people. In other words, confidence depends on good old individual values ​​and personality, which are not linked to a person’s appearance.

A beauty premium has already been observed for both men and women. However, one might think that women, who are generally thought to have a higher degree of social intelligence, are better able to determine the reliability of their partner. Our results do not demonstrate this. Women are on average judged more beautiful and also judge others to be more beautiful. However, women do not act more honorable than men in the game. Finally, men and women agree on their expectations of who will be trustworthy or not, and women are therefore not better than men at predicting behavior.

Are people perceived as “beautiful” more suspicious of their peers?

The adage that “all that glitters is not gold” therefore also applies to beauty in humans. However, it is questionable who is most likely to fall victim to this bias. One might think that people who themselves are often treated favorably because of their appearance are aware that this impression should not be trusted, which results from an assessment bias.

We designed our study so that we could also investigate this question. More precisely, the participants we recruited in Lyon to make their predictions were also photographed. So we knew how much they were influenced by other people’s appearances, but also how conventionally beautiful they themselves were. Our results are clear. Beauty bias exists for everyone. While we might think that those who benefit from good looks can see behind the mask, they are just as influenced by the appearance of others when deciding who to trust.

So the beauty industry is right. Investing in beauty is definitely worth it because it brings real benefits. However, recruiters or managers must be careful not to be misled. One way to do this is to anonymize resumes and prohibit photos in job applications. But in many interactions, we must decide whether or not to trust. It is therefore essential to be aware of your own biases. Our results highlight that this bias is very difficult to overcome, since even people who, from their own experience, should be aware of the judgment bias conferred by beauty are victims of it.

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