Is talent only skin deep?

Ugly-vs-handsomeWe live in an age where talent is everything.  It’s an age where leading thinkers are trumpeting the value of thought diversity for organizations that want to stay ahead of the game.

It’s a noble concept that I very much support.  It suggests that our thoughts and ideas are what matter rather than how we look or the box we fit into.  However, it isn’t really what life is like.

Why looks matter

A recent study underlines how important looks are when it comes to our engagements with colleagues.

The study, by researchers at Eastern Kentucky University, found that we tend to be much more forgiving to attractive people than we do our more ordinary looking peers.

It’s an example of how the halo effect, whereby we assume strong performance in one area has ramifications for unrelated fields, can also have negative repercussions.

The negative halo effect

The authors asked female participants their perceptions of a number of men via two written scenarios.  One of the men in the scenarios was attractive, whilst the other was unfortunately not.  The scenarios saw one of the men commit a social faux pas, whilst the other behaved more respectably.

The data revealed that the women were much more likely to forgive the man his faux pas if he was attractive than when he was unattractive.  It emerged that the handsome man was regarded the same way regardless of the scenario, whereas the plain man saw his character ripped apart as soon as he transgressed.

“The unattractive male is tolerated up to a point; his unattractiveness is OK until he misbehaves,” the authors say.

The research was framed very much in the sense of sexual attraction, but they also veer into other areas.  For instance, they highlight how unattractive defendants tend to receive harsher penalties than attractive ones, even for the same crime.

“A man who stands trial has already shown himself to have violated social norms in one way or another. If he is also unattractive, the magnified devil effect may result in a larger fine or sentence, as it could influence how negatively jurors view him and, as a result, the degree to which they believe him guilty of the crime,” they explain.

Now, of course, it is worth considering that this halo effect only tends to occur when we’re being judged by members of the opposite sex.

Indeed, when we’re being judged by members of the same sex, research suggests that being unattractive can actually be an advantage.

Whilst the picture is undoubtedly a complex one, what does appear difficult to dispute is how clouded our judgment can often be when analyzing the merits of our peers.  The chances are we aren’t anywhere near as meritocratic as we’d like to believe we are.

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One thought on “Is talent only skin deep?

  1. As much as we'd surely love to think otherwise, I think it's incredibly naive to think that looks don't matter in life. In my experience they're hugely important.

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