The hiring bias toward attractive people is way more complicated than we thought

Tough luck.
Tough luck.
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A growing body of research suggests that conventionally attractive-looking people have it all: They go on more dates, are more likely to be elected to office, make more money, and are perceived as more likable and trustworthy.

Perhaps most infuriating to the mere mortals in their offices, past studies suggest that attractive people are also more likely to be hired and promoted at work.

But a new study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests there’s an aspect of hiring in which being good-looking can work against you.

As it turns out, attractive people are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to landing relatively less-desirable jobs. According to the new research, people don’t just hire attractive people because they consciously or unconsciously prefer them—rather, when hiring, people actively consider what roles the physically attractive candidates would themselves prefer, and then base the hiring decision on that perceived preference.

This finding is novel in that it suggests we don’t just selfishly prefer to be around attractive people, we also actively work to put attractive people in better positions because we think they will be more satisfied in such roles.

Researchers at the London Business School evaluated the influence of physical attractiveness on hiring decisions based on four experiments, involving more than 750 participants, including university students and human resources managers.

In all experiments, participants were shown photos of two potential candidates, one conventionally attractive, one conventionally unattractive, and then asked questions to measure perceptions of how entitled the different candidates were to good outcomes.

Previous research has shown that some occupations are considered to be more or less desirable, depending on how well they satisfy people’s intrinsic needs (e.g. job interestingness and social impact) and extrinsic needs (e.g. financial incentives and occupational prestige). The same criterion were used in this study to distinguish between the hypothetical job options. The more-desirable jobs included that of a manager, project director, or IT internship, and the less-desirable jobs included roles as a warehouse worker, housekeeper, or customer-service representative.

In three of the four experiments, participants were asked whether they would hire the two candidates for relatively more- and less desirable jobs. And in all three, they were more likely to hire the attractive candidates for the more-desirable jobs. However, they were actually less likely to hire the attractive people for the less-desirable jobs.

“We found that people perceive attractive individuals to feel more entitled to good outcomes than unattractive individuals,” says study co-author Margaret Lee, a doctoral candidate in organizational behavior at London School of Business. This led participants to assume that attractive candidates would be less satisfied with a job like housekeeper, though all participants, regardless of attractiveness, would be satisfied with a job like manager. ”Therefore in the selection decision for an undesirable job, decision makers were more likely to choose the unattractive individual over the attractive individual.” 

The only information the subjects had to go on were the photographs, some of which showed real faces and others computer-generated images, with the attractiveness levels in each set based on standards determined in prior research. All of the faces were racially white, with hair, clothing, and background kept constant to isolate the effect of facial attractiveness.

Based on prior research, Lee says, the prediction would be that decision makers tend to select attractive candidates in all selection decisions.

“Our work suggests that we may need to think differently about low level jobs,” she says. “Jobs that are considered to be less desirable are typically those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, including a disproportionate number of people who might be particularly vulnerable if they become victims of discrimination.”