In the 19th century, numerous US cities banned public appearances by people deemed “unsightly.” An 1867 San Francisco law, for example, prohibited “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object . . . [from] exposing himself or herself to public view.” Similar laws — known as “ugly laws” — were on the books in cities including Chicago, Denver, and Omaha.
Ugly laws were an especially crude form of prejudice, but discrimination based on appearance remains with us more than we might care to admit. A wide body of new social science research shows that appearance-based discrimination, or “lookism,” is a pervasive and little recognized bias — one that shapes everything from which politicians win elections to which academic papers earn more citations.
In a series of studies, University of Chicago psychologist Alexander Todorov and his collaborators have confirmed just how important physical appearance is in elections. The researchers showed participants pairs of photographs of House, Senate, and gubernatorial candidates for very short periods of time — as little as one-tenth of a second — and asked them to judge which of the candidates appeared more impressive based solely on the pictures of their faces. These superficial snap judgments correlated remarkably well with actual election results. In one study, for example, participants correctly guessed the outcome of more than 70 percent of Senate races after glancing at the candidates’ headshots. The extent to which participants preferred one candidate’s looks to another’s strongly predicted the final margin of victory. In other words, candidates whom voters perceived as better looking defeated their opponents by larger margins.
This is not just an American phenomenon. Studies have found that more attractive candidates win more frequently in Australian local and parliamentary races, Brazilian gubernatorial elections, Canadian federal parliamentary elections, Finnish national and municipal contests, French parliamentary elections, German legislative elections, and local elections in the United Kingdom. In some of these studies, attractive candidates win as many as twice the votes of their less appealing competitors. And lookism seems to primarily benefit right-wing politicians. In the United States, Australia, and Europe, conservative candidates are perceived, on average, as better looking than their opponents, earning an electoral benefit from this advantage among both left- and right-wing voters (although conservative voters seem to care more about appearances).
There seems to be something innate about perceptions of what is attractive: People’s ratings are generally consistent across sex, age, class, and cultural background. In a recent study, Americans and Indians were asked to rate Mexican and Brazilian political candidates based purely on pictures of their faces. Participants in the US and India overwhelmingly agreed on who looked like a successful politician — and these ratings strongly predicted which candidates actually won office in Mexican and Brazilian elections. Even children’s gut reactions to faces predict electoral outcomes. In one study, researchers showed children photographs of 57 pairs of politicians and asked them which one they would prefer to captain a boat on an epic voyage. The children’s choices predicted the candidates who went on to win the election around two-thirds of the time.
Outside of politics, attractive people obtain jobs more easily and earn more money — as much as $230,000 more over the course of a lifetime for the typical good-looking person, according to economist Daniel Hamermesh. NFL quarterbacks with more symmetrical faces are better paid than their less “good-looking” counterparts, even accounting for traits such as passing yards, years of experience, draft position, and Pro Bowl appearances. And in experiments in which subjects are asked how they would resolve legal cases, attractive defendants receive more lenient jail sentences, while less conventionally feminine-looking women are more likely to have their sexual harassment claims dismissed.
Lookism even pervades academia. In a new working paper, 241 evaluators rated the attractiveness of 752 people who graduated from top economics departments between 2002 and 2006. The economists who were rated as more attractive were much likelier to have graduated from higher-ranked PhD programs and to have received job offers from higher-ranked institutions. More attractive economists also had better publication records, and their academic work was cited more frequently.
What can be done about this problem? Some legal scholars have argued that just as the Constitution bars discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, and ethnicity, so too should it outlaw discrimination based on appearance. Such legal remedies would face tough obstacles: Attractiveness is harder to define than race or sex, and it may be difficult to prove discrimination based on subconscious biases.
At the very least, however, we can try to become more aware of our biases in whom we vote for or hire. Discrimination on the basis of physical appearance deserves more attention among the list of superficial prejudices that continue to blight American society.
Bryan Schonfeld and Sam Winter-Levy are PhD candidates in politics at Princeton University.