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Higher self-perceived attractiveness increases support for inequality
April 24, 2014 9:58 AM   Subscribe

"seeing yourself as physically attractive leads you to believe you belong in a higher social class," according to a recent study by Peter Belmi and Margaret Neale of Stanford Graduate School of Business. Through a series of five studies, they found that "self-perceived attractiveness shaped people's social class perceptions, which in turn, influenced how people responded to inequality and social hierarchies." For example, higher self-perceived attractiveness "reduced donations to a movement advocating for social equality," while lower self-perceived attractiveness led to "greater rejection of inequality and social hierarchies."
posted by needled (45 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
Finally, empirical support for the "ugly feminist" thesis /trollhat

This is pretty interesting for me, since part of my job involves thinking about how to get people to contribute to a social justice movement that, stereotypically, places outsized focus on attractiveness. I wonder if there are, say, ways of making gala attendees feel less attractive and therefore more likely to give. Like, maybe a photo booth with "novelty" facial distortions that would make people look a bit grotesque?

Also, can someone with access to the journal describe how significant the impact is? Like, how frequently is it seen and how big an influence it is?
posted by klangklangston at 10:18 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


It appears that I am uglier than I always thought I was.
posted by weeyin at 10:21 AM on April 24 [5 favorites]


"What's surprising is that we find that most people seem to endorse hierarchy when they think they're attractive and oppose it when they think they're not," Belmi said.

Wow, this contains a goldmine of bleak truths, if you want to parse it that way. Ugh humanity.
posted by naju at 10:23 AM on April 24 [8 favorites]


Well, as someone who is and has always been ugly... and has never had any illusions about being attractive... I support this message.
posted by greenhornet at 10:28 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Study 4 was specifically about self-perceived attractiveness and donating to a social justice movement. 28% of those who rated themselves as highly attractive donated, compared to 49% of those who rated their attractiveness as low. The difference was significant at the p<0.01 level. Level of self-perceived empathy had no significant effect on contributions.
posted by needled at 10:31 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


"What's surprising is that we find that most people seem to endorse hierarchy when they think they're attractive and oppose it when they think they're not," Belmi said.

Everyone likes a hierarchy when they are on top.

Joking aside, I am intrigued by Klang's comment about how to operationalize this. If I start getting fundraising requests that start with "Dear Unattractive Person, We are sorry about your ugliness. However, our 2014 capital campaign goals....", I will know that his ideas are working.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:36 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


Well, this pretty much explains high school.


It's interesting that the emphasis is on self-perceived attractiveness, not objective attractiveness. So that out-of-shape, ugly bastard who still thinks he's god's gift to women? Yeah, that's why a bridge troll feels entitled to compulsively rate chicks by a number system.
posted by blue suede stockings at 10:36 AM on April 24 [15 favorites]


klangklangston - maybe you could get people reminiscing about times they felt like the ugly duckling in middle school, then swoop in with the appeal. I'd love to see what happens if somebody tests different messages then tells us what works.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:46 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


Hm. People presumably feel more attractive when they're dressed well. So maybe the tradition of wearing your "Sunday best" to church is a defense mechanism against sermons exhorting people to take care of the poor.
posted by baf at 10:47 AM on April 24 [3 favorites]


This is pretty interesting for me, since part of my job involves thinking about how to get people to contribute to a social justice movement that, stereotypically, places outsized focus on attractiveness. I wonder if there are, say, ways of making gala attendees feel less attractive and therefore more likely to give. Like, maybe a photo booth with "novelty" facial distortions that would make people look a bit grotesque?

Three words: no makeup selfies.

(As in, see if this trend is really linked to increased donations--or, conversely, if the people willing to do it are those who feel an above-average amount of confidence in their untouched physical appearance and therefore inspiring donations in those who are left thinking, "oh dear, and meanwhile I look like day-old hamburger meat instead of like Beyonce without my morning makeup".)
posted by blue suede stockings at 10:50 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


a long time ago in a city one state south of me, there was an upmarket supermarket, now gone, that used to have "singles nights" where young unattacheds would cruise up and down the aisles. there were tables of free food, and helium balloons, and one of the young male participants had a schtick. upon spotting potential prey in the aisle, he would inhale a deep draught of helium, swoop down on her and ask, in his best donald duck...

"why can't i be RICH as well as GOODLOOKING?"
posted by bruce at 10:52 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


selfmedicating, that's what the researchers did in some of the studies. They started with a writing exercise in which participants had to write about an incident in their life in which they felt physically attractive (high attractiveness condition), physically unattractive (low attractiveness condition), or they went to the grocery store (control, or baseline condition). Then people had to rate their physical attractiveness. In others they just had them rate their own physical attractiveness, In either case this primed people to think about their attractiveness, and then they were asked further questions relating to social class or donating to a cause, etc.
posted by needled at 10:55 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I wonder if there are, say, ways of making gala attendees feel less attractive and therefore more likely to give.

I think this may be an effective idea, but seems morally suspect, particularly for gender groups that already deal with a lot of feeling unattractive through media.

However, maybe the opposite effect, of convincing people that creating an unhealthy body image for women destabilizes capitalism, might be used to get people to stop making women feel like shit about their natural features?
posted by corb at 10:58 AM on April 24


Yes -- I'm just curious to see if an organization can get it to work in the real world!
posted by selfmedicating at 10:59 AM on April 24


"klangklangston - maybe you could get people reminiscing about times they felt like the ugly duckling in middle school, then swoop in with the appeal. I'd love to see what happens if somebody tests different messages then tells us what works."

Ooh, with the bullying stuff we work on, that could be perfect. We don't have a good system for a/b, but even simple things like having two asks, one after the uglor reminiscence and one before, could give moderate support (since we know the baseline difference in response between the two asks).
posted by klangklangston at 11:03 AM on April 24


I don't think manipulating people into feeling ugly is a great or ethical solution to anything. I'd prefer to see organizations try to make people aware of how their personal high self-regard can potentially blind them to injustice. Awareness of privilege seems like half the battle in general, at least, and maybe "thinking that I'm really really ridiculously good-looking" is a subtle form of privilege, or a sign that other privileges are present. I don't know, I'm just spitballing here.
posted by naju at 11:09 AM on April 24 [7 favorites]


bruce, that sounds like a pretty good racket said unnamed stranger had.

Of course these are only trends and not rules, which explains why I can be both devastatingly handsome and generous. Also modest.

naju that sounds great and noble, but I'm not sure our monkey brains will allow it. We engage in subtle forms of othering seemingly by instinct. Might be impossible to stop that as easily as it is to manipulate it.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:09 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I tend to believe that ALL forms of othering can be countered by sufficient awareness. Or choose to believe, I guess.
posted by naju at 11:14 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


This explains why at the end of "I Feel Pretty", Natalie Wood screams "get a job!!" out the window.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:18 AM on April 24 [12 favorites]


"What's surprising is that we find that most people seem to endorse hierarchy when they think they're attractive and oppose it when they think they're not," Belmi said.

To whom could this possibly be surprising? (Well, Belmi, obviously, I guess, but really?)
posted by enn at 11:28 AM on April 24


Muhammad ("I'm so pretty!") Ali would seem to be the exception that proves the rule.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:34 AM on April 24


All of the numbers are bad. The people who think they are attractive are significantly worse but let's not pretend any of the actual numbers are good.
posted by srboisvert at 11:34 AM on April 24



"What's surprising is that we find that most people seem to endorse hierarchy when they think they're attractive and oppose it when they think they're not," Belmi said.


It all depends on whose ox is gored - that's the great truth of social movements. I try to ignore this great truth as much as possible because it's too depressing and what the hell, in a hundred years we'll all be dead.
posted by Frowner at 11:44 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


Well, I'm terribly sorry, but there's only so much handsomeness to go around and you can't have any of mine.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:52 AM on April 24


If you want to be handsome just pick yourself up by your bootstraps.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:57 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


The article assumes that the attractiveness self-rating is the cause and the support for inequality is the effect, but couldn't it be the other way round? Or maybe both are the effect of some other cause.

(Of course they could just be correlated but not causal, but we usually save that argument for results we don't like)
posted by rocket88 at 11:58 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


Oh, you pretty things...
posted by jonmc at 12:09 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of people who support hierarchy also perceive themselves to naturally be oligarchs, but the truth is they'd probably plummet to the bottom of society if we reinstated a caste, cf. The Dark Enlightenment.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:27 PM on April 24


I read through all this and then all the comments here and I wonder how much of it is driven by resentment rather than empathy or the natural inclination of the good looking to oppress the less good looking. I wonder how perceived attractiveness would impact donations to a different kind of cause, or one that was phrased or presented differently. I think conflating social justice with "willing to throw in a few bucks towards changing a system that I subjectively feel I'm not at the top of" is kind of.. fraught.

For example would members of group A still be willing to fund equality movement for group B, with no perceived benefit for themselves based on their self-rated attractiveness?
posted by fshgrl at 1:40 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


We needed a scientific study to tell us that people with egos think themselves entitled?
posted by asfuller at 1:45 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Aren't you looking at a measure of narcissism?
People with narcissistic personality disorder might well support inequality, since NPD means "I'm better than everyone else!"
posted by bad grammar at 1:51 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


I'm taking a writing class and one of the first tasks was to write and present a list of things we are afraid to admit out loud. One person's list was about their feelings regarding their attractiveness, and somewhere on the list was "I think I am entitled to more and better things because I am attractive." (somewhat paraphrased) I think there was also something about feeling upset if ugly people get what they were after, or something.

So I wonder if part of the connection is that people who consider themselves attractive also feel like they deserve the good things they get, they're entitled to good things, and that there's no point helping ugly people because they in a way deserve their fate? Even if they don'r consciously or openly believe it, that expectation is there? And perhaps people who don't think they're attractive are already used to being denied opportunities or access to things and therefore can empathise with others who are similarly suffering.
posted by divabat at 2:40 PM on April 24 [3 favorites]


I think a lot of people who support hierarchy also perceive themselves to naturally be oligarchs, but the truth is they'd probably plummet to the bottom of society if we reinstated a caste, cf. The Dark Enlightenment.

Well yes, this is the hilarity of most libertarians. In a libertarian society they'd be enslaved by the kinds of assholes that beat them up in high school. But in their heads, they're Captains of Industry.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:52 PM on April 24 [4 favorites]



So I wonder if part of the connection is that people who consider themselves attractive also feel like they deserve the good things they get, they're entitled to good things, and that there's no point helping ugly people because they in a way deserve their fate?


I'm close to a person who is very pretty. For better of worse, being pretty is a big part of she is and she spends a lot of time and money on it. Sometimes I'll catch her talking about some co-worker, some celebrity, some whatever who doesn't hold to my sister's near-impossible beauty regime or subscribe to her (fairly narrow and stereotypical) measure of beauty. Stuff like, "I can't believe anyone gave her a promotion/engagement ring/ tv show. I mean she looks old and she's not even pretty." I used to fight with her all the time about it, because she sounded like a shallow, judgemental jerk. I stopped when I figured out what was really bothering her was 1)the idea that she believed she could only succeed in life by being the prettiest girl in the room (which is sad) because 2)being pretty was the only thing she was good at (which is sadder) and so 3) when other people were successful despite not spending an hour on hair and makeup and two hours at the gym and subsisting entirely off of cayenne cleanse juice and the occasional salad, she felt like it invalidated the only part of her life about which she felt confident.
posted by thivaia at 3:34 PM on April 24 [14 favorites]


I would feel bad if being pretty (or handsome and, particularly, tall for a man) didn't give you all sorts of privilege unavailable to less attractive / shorties. Instead I'm going to go with "yeah, that's really shallow."
posted by Justinian at 4:28 PM on April 24


Jimmy Soul
posted by bukvich at 4:36 PM on April 24


Thivaia, I know a woman who is also extremely good-looking and also talented in many other areas. Unfortunately she believes that her looks are her only real value, to the point where if she posts a picture on Facebook and a comment isn't of the "you look so gorgeous" variety it gets deleted. It makes me reticent to interact with her on social media at all because I feel like it just feeds a part of her that will invariably turn rancid when her looks fade.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:38 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


idk man i am super cute and super narcissistic as well as kind of obnoxiously superficial and i still look forward to stuffing the 1% into a wicker man and redistributing their wealth to the masses as we make smores over the merry flames
posted by elizardbits at 11:10 PM on April 24 [18 favorites]


And this is why I am a generous socialist.
posted by Decani at 11:36 PM on April 24


I can't access the article (July issue not yet available at my uni) but it sounds like the prompts were memories of self-perceptions of attractiveness in socially motivated situations, or at least in settings with an implied audience, which itself suggests social comparison - either involving interpersonal stakes and risks, and (maybe) implied competitors, or observers holding external standards, which might prime schemas relating to hierarchy:

The mere memories of bad-hair days or the times a good-looking date smiled in their direction affected the way the participants viewed inequality. Considering the former kind of memory, study participants were more likely to see inequality as a problem. Immersed in the latter, they embraced the idea of hierarchies.

Like, you don't think of yourself as having a bad hair day when you're spending Sunday on the couch by yourself; that instruction would have to call up a memory of some public setting, like work, where hierarchies do matter. So maybe they were implicitly making hierarchy salient at the same time that they were priming attractiveness.

How did they measure self-perceptions relating to 'empathy' and 'integrity'?
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:38 PM on April 24


It makes complete sense to me that people who grow up genetically blessed in terms of beauty or at least feeling as if they were born with an inherent quality that puts them in a position of superiority over others would be more likely to subscribe to the just-world fallacy.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 5:33 AM on April 25 [1 favorite]


But, but, but. Isn't America a classless society?
posted by epo at 7:29 AM on April 25


Mile's law strikes again.
posted by absentian at 12:00 PM on April 25


Elizardbits, you are clearly an outlier. And we're grateful for it.
posted by gingerest at 2:08 AM on April 26


Whoops. There are two ways to read that and I meant it in the complimentary one.
posted by gingerest at 2:09 AM on April 26


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