The Halo Effect

We instinctively know that our society affords the benefit of the doubt to the best looking among us. Newsweek just ran an article to help us quantify exactly how much.

In her recent article, “The Beauty Advantage,” columnist Jessica Bennett cites the following facts:

  • Handsome men earn, on average, five percent more than do less attractive men (four percent more for women).
  • Over his career, an attractive man will make $250,000 more on average than a less attractive man (from economist Daniel Hamermesh).
  • Thirteen percent of women say they’d consider plastic surgery if it made them more competitive (American Society of Plastic Surgeons).
  • Sixty percent of overweight women and forty percent of overweight men say they’ve experienced employment discrimination.
  • Fifty-seven percent of surveyed hiring managers told Newsweek that qualified but less attractive candidates will have a harder time landing a job.
  • Sixty-one percent of managers (majority men) surveyed said that women gain an advantage by wearing work attire that shows their figure.
  • Ranked in order of importance, looks came in 3rd behind experience (1st), confidence (2nd), but ahead of the candidate’s school (4th).

The article goes on to talk about “The Halo Effect,” saying, “like a pack of untrained puppies, we are mesmerized by beauty, blindly ascribing intelligent traits to go along with it.” I wouldn’t stop at intelligence.  I’d add virtue, charisma, energy, wisdom, and sexual ability.

It is intellectually dubious to assume qualities like intelligence and virtue based solely on appearance, and it is morally dubious to grant jobs and benefits based on that assumption. And you know what? None. Of. That. Matters.

As I’ve written in earlier entries, society grants attention and benefit to those of high status. Status drives our attraction instincts.  This is a biological pack-animal imperative, hard-wired into the collective unconscious. And one attribute of the high-status pack animal is that they are physically attractive. We all unknowingly contribute to this silent social contract, even if it does not benefit us as much as others. We may judge it, or condemn it, or wish it away, but it is fact.

The Halo Effect probably has an evolutionary explanation. As that same article suggests, “…humans are attracted to symmetrical faces and curvy women for a reason: it’s those shapes that are believed to produce the healthiest offspring.”

The author Bennett suggests that these impulses are reinforced by “a confluence of cultural forces that has left us clutching, desperately, to an ever-evolving beauty ideal,” and that we are “a culture more sexualized than ever…with technology that’s made it easier than ever to ‘better’ ourselves, warping our standards for what’s normal.”

There’s nothing particularly new here; Ms. Bennett’s analysis operates on the level of the high school forensic speakers who’ve ranted against unrealistic beauty standards since time immemorial.

Interestingly, there may be some correlation between looks and ability, but not in the elitist, bigoted way most people would assume.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell pointed out an odd phenomenon among Canadian professional hockey players: most of them had birthdays that fell within the same three or four months out of the year. After conducting research, he found that this wasn’t a coincidence.

The farm system for professional Canadian hockey is their youth hockey league system, which provides exceptional training and support to the most gifted young athletes. Those athletes are chosen when they are about 13 years old, when adolescent physical development is happening very rapidly. At that age, an extra year of development makes a big difference in terms of strength and coordination.

Gladwell found that the kids with birthdays most immediately before the eligibility cut-off month were physically biggest, furthest developed and most coordinated, and consequently the most commonly promoted to the best youth league teams. The physical superiority was due to the fact that they were, by month, the oldest kids in their designated age group. Had they been compared to a group of kids all born in the same month, no differences would have been apparent. But because they had the initial appearance of physical superiority, they were singled out and given the best training and support, and therefore given the best chances for a professional career.

So too, we may be empowering the best looking in our society with the advantages of superior developmental support, enabling their skills and abilities and reinforcing the stereotype that looks precede virtue.

The point of the Newsweek article was to call attention to The Halo Effect, and to condemn it. And to the author’s credit, it is a fact of life that is unfair. But it is a fact of life. And it’s not 100% undesirable; the society that gives no weight to looks or charisma is the society that abandons its sense of dress, decorum and self-upkeep.  I would suggest that it’s healthier to accept this social phenomenon, understand that it is in irrevocable part of human nature, and adapt to it.  After all, we all take special pains to look our best for important moments of judgment like job interviews, and most of us accept it as part of the test.

Two points: first, if we want to, we can exert a lot of control over our appearance. Granted, not all of us will end up looking like Matt Bomer from White Collar (that lucky S.O.B.!), but we may not have to. Dating guru and Askmen.com columnist David Deangelo says that with some basic attention to hygiene and clothing, we can pull ourselves together enough to make a difference.  Men are stereotypically notorious for putting less thought into these matters than they should, and Deangelo suggests that inattention creates obstacles not only in dating, but in everyday life. So if we decide that we care enough about the “beauty premium” enough to do something about it, most of us have the capability to get ourselves away from the negative end of the spectrum.

Second, we must remember that The Halo Effect ultimately highlights status, not necessarily just looks. You don’t have to be a matinee idol, you just have to get the liking principle to work to your advantage. Physical appearance may be an indicator of social value, but it is not the only indicator. Status is communicated just as much through behavior as through appearance.

For men, status in communicated through relaxed, territorial body language, an even, resonant voice, a confident manner that’s free of insecurity or over-expressiveness, and leadership. Watch the following scene from Mad Men: Don, the show’s protagonist, is in a dominance fight with one of his clients. Note the voice and body – high status behavior is conveyed well in this clip (by both actors, actually). Note the reactions of the other men in the room. Also note the lesson of the scene: the winner of the status arm-wrestle determines where the business goes.

Women demonstrate high status through the same qualities, even though confidence and high-status body language looks obviously different from a woman than it does from a man. Here’s another scene from Mad Men featuring a status-play between two female characters. Joan, the redhead, is the high-status player and conveys high social value. Peggy, the brunette in the ponytail, first tries to claim dominance by being snarky, but then submits to Joan’s much more dominant will.

In our society, social status will always produce a Halo Effect. Right or wrong, we will always make snap judgments about people based on their looks, and if we like what we see, we will make unwarranted positive assumptions about him or her. My view is, if you care enough about it to take action, it is ultimately healthier and more productive to accept it and adapt, rather than to chastise society for its unconscious evolutionary wiring.

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  1. debbie r
    August 3, 2010 at 12:22 PM

    Overall, there are a lot of attractive waiters out there, getting really good tips. But to run the company–well, I will take a freak or geek any day to someone who just looks good. The halo effect has bearing on first impressions, but not necessarily for longer term interactions, status or otherwise. When I was a hiring manager, I became more highly skeptical of candidates who were very attractive, because I had been burned by people who looked the part and acted the part, yet were completely inept or toxic and had to be let go. It was important to delve beyond the superficial to really get to know the person. If you are investing time and money into them, they have to come up with the goods, not just the good lookings.

    Mad Men is all about the superficial, which is fine, because we only meet with them once a week. But even once a week, I can’t help but look at Don Draper as a character and think, “Christ, what an asshole.” He lost his halo a long time ago.

  1. October 6, 2011 at 9:43 AM

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