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Beauty Bias

December 06, 2012

© David Astle

Have you got the looks? Then you probably have the rewards too. At least that’s the hunch of a growing body of psychological and economic research into the field of human beauty. A key phrase arising from the studies – the beauty bias – captures the trend of attractive people reigning over the plain. In the office, the street, the classroom, the pretty prevail. But let’s peg down what the clichés and the classics define as a beautiful face before we plumb its power to win friends and influence people.

Fresh from the womb, we recognize beauty. It’s part of the human hard-drive, as discovered by a psychology team in Exeter three years ago. Dr Alan Slater and his researchers dangled a dozen photos, two pictures per time, in front of 100 newborn babies. Omitting the mother’s portrait, the images were a range of female faces, from plain to attractive as determined by public voting. Despite being hours old, the infant would turn its gaze towards the prettier.

The impulse is an evolutionary twitch. More than a pleasing sight, beauty is a signpost to health and (by implication) desirable genes. In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff writes that beauty “provokes pleasure, rivets attention and impels actions that help ensure survival of our genes”. Beauty has a magnetism, a status, a value. No matter how married or loyal or infantile we may be, we’re destined to notice – and admire – the pick of the opposite sex.

Yet what is The Pick? How can one face outshine another? Such questions nagged the Ancient Greeks. The answer, according to Pythagoras, lay in harmony – or his native word, kosmos, (our source of cosmetic). He seized on bilateral symmetry, where the left side of the face mirrors the right – while all other elements observe a delicate ratio.

To the Greek mind, the dream face is a third longer than it is wide. Just as the ideal nose is no longer than the distance between the eyes. Plato would coin such measures (see more in box) as the Golden Proportions, the very stuff of marble gods and heroes that crowded the Parthenon.

Surprisingly, averageness is the other secret. Polykleitos, a sculptor from the days of Pericles, insisted beauty owed less to the exceptional than the glorified norm. No physical freak, Michelangelo’s David is a celebration of the human average, where chin and nose and height and muscle are not exaggerated, but essentially a triumph of who we, the onlookers, are.

Of course, the “we” is crucial here. Across cultures and epochs, beauty can embrace varying factors, such as tribal scars, Turkish bellies, the giraffe necks of Myanmar’s Karen people. Yet a Japanese experiment by Professors Thakerar and Iwawaki, as published in the Journal of Social Psychology of 1979, suggests a global consensus on what is attractive. Asian observers graded a series of Greek male faces, from striking to plain, in much the same way that Greek volunteers had done so. Handsome seems a shared language.

Couple this finding with the ascendancy of the Western ideal, where pageants and Hollywood and cosmetic billboards promote uniform glamour, and you realize more and more how beauty is an agreed currency. Indians alone spend some $A335 million per year on skin-lightening creams, while the almond-ising of Asian eyes is a booming surgical practice.

And for what? Beautiful by birth or professional help, what do your looks provide? Aristotle dropped a hint. Two millennia before “beauty bias” had joined the language, the Greek declared, “Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference.”

Professor Daniel Hamermesh, an economics guru at Texas University, put the bias to the test in 1998. Hamermesh and colleague, Dr Jeff Biddle, sifted a sample of graduation photos from various law colleges, having four lay observers (two men, two women, of two generations) rate the snaps on a scale of 1 (homely) to 5 (hubba-hubba). Next, the team contrasted the graduates’ subsequent wages, trial success and corporate status against their looks – and beauty won the case for a pretty sum.

“Beauty,” concludes the paper, Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination: Lawyers’ Looks and Lucre, “is not merely correlated with, but actually causes differences in earnings.” In cash terms the Beauty Premium is estimated to be some US$2600 (or almost $5000 Australian), while the Plainness Penalty is roughly equivalent. In other words, bone structure comes with a 5G price tag.

The same study reveals plainer lawyers rife in the public sector. “The division is based,” surmises the paper, “on the observation that the duties of a lawyer in the private sector often include a marketing component.” Whereas Legal Aid, or any other government arm, services a captive clientele.

Dr Rachael Eggins, a social psychology lecturer at Australian National University (ANU), tackles the idea of a glamour-centric law firm: “If people find that clients respond more positively to an attractive lawyer, then it doesn’t matter why, but [employers] will appoint more attractive lawyers. Is it pragmatic? Or is it evidence of an unconscious bias towards beauty?”

Airlines and reception desks, silver screen and small: some industries flaunt the glamourpusses they hire. The pillbox ensemble of a 1950s hostie is a genre of chic all on its own. Yet does the same bias exist in other professions? Dr Leanne Cutcher, a lecturer in strategic management at the University of Sydney, knows the practice as “aesthetic labour”.

“If you’re working in a bar, or behind retail counter, you’re selling a product. As [US sociologist, George] Ritzer says, you’re ‘enchanting your customer’. And so, in a sense, the worker becomes an extension of the product.”

Cutcher cites the juice bar. “Boost, let’s say, recruits a certain kind of person – young, healthy looking. I’ve seen them in action: they play games behind the counter – they’ve got to be up, got to be on the whole time. They call that “staging”, where people have staging values, they’re performing, and they become the product’s embodiment.”

And does such a bias reward the employer? Cutcher laughs. “How often do you see a big queue at the Boost bar, when there’s a sandwich shop just down the road that’s selling just as good juices and no-one’s there?”

Here Cutcher adds a caution. “Aesthetic labour becomes a controlling mechanism for the worker as well. Because they buy into it, they do take great care of themselves, they dye their hair or whatever. In a sense they allow the employer to have further control over certain aspects of their life.”

Dr Chris Moss, a Melbourne plastic surgeon of 18 years’ experience, says, “We usually judge a person within ten to fifteen seconds. It doesn’t take Einstein to realize that a lot of that decision will be based on looks.”

Moss tells of a recent patient. “She was 65, a real estate agent. Her sales were right down so she decided to have a face-lift. And suddenly she’s out there, getting great sales and even finding a new life partner.”

Not that taut tummies or button noses dictate success, as Moss is quick to qualify. “It’s really all about self-confidence. Or self esteem. And that’s the biggest benefit I can produce in my patients.”

And there lies the curious cycle of beauty. Wit and grace and self-esteem may well be valued qualities, regardless of looks. Yet beauty is commonly the first aspect another person registers. And seeing beauty, our subconscious affords the alluring other with a glowing set of attributes. (Handsome guys must be handy at home and hot in bed, right?) Clinicians, such as Eggins, label beauty a self-fulfilling currency. Since our own instincts afford the attractive person more attention, the same person accrues an inbuilt assurance.

“We give [the beautiful] more talking time,” believes Dr Michael Platow, a psychology lecturer at ANU, and expert in interpersonal behaviour. “They have the floor more often, which allows them to be more persuasive, whether or not the content of what they’re saying is meaningful or not. That helps beautiful people gain influence, power, the ability to forward themselves and others if they choose.”

Bathed in limelight, beauty flourishes, as a remarkable study in the city of lovers – Verona – suggests. Professor Giam Cipriani measured exam results of 885 economic students at an unnamed Italian university. Graded in beauty by a lay panel, from fabulous 5 to humble 1, the glamour results shared an eerie ratio with academic marks. Namely students enjoying Grade-4 looks achieved a 36% better performance than their plainer Grade-2 cohorts. The eeriness owes to the exams being marked blind of the beauty measure.

“The higher productivity of attractive people,” proposes Cipriani, “could be the result of pure discrimination because of parental (and teacher) solicitude”¦” Beauty, in other words, is given more attention, and thereby greater chance to excel.

Wait a minute, did I just read parental? Surely not! In a controversial study, Professor Andrew Harrell, a sociologist at Canada’s Alberta University, posted observers across 14 local supermarkets some two years ago. The vigil’s focus was Moms and Dads, specifically what safety concerns they displayed for their kids. Of the 400 interpersonal episodes, results showed a strong bias in favour of the prettier offspring. He or she was far more likely (at 13 per cent) to be harnessed into the shopping trolley, or closely observed, versus only 4 per cent among the homely brigade.

An outcry ensued. Many clinicians deemed the trial too subjective, or lacking a robust control. On the defence, Harrell told the New York Times, “Like lots of animals, we tend to parcel out our resources on the basis of value. Maybe we can’t articulate that, but in fact we do it. There are a lot of things that make a person more valuable, and physical attractiveness may be one of them.”

Closer to home, a study called Beautiful Politicians emerged late last year. The authors, Dr Andrew Leigh, an economist at ANU and tutor Amy King from the University of South Australia, measured “voteshare” against a candidate’s appeal (as rated again by a lay panel of four). While John Howard failed to overheat the glam-o-meter, his party had a far higher beauty ranking (57 per cent more appealing than all opponents) in contrast to Labor and Nationals (both in the mid-40 percentile).

Memorably, US Senator John McCain described Washington DC as “Hollywood for ugly people”, yet the Aussie findings indicate “a strong positive relationship between our raters’ assessment of beauty and candidates’ share of the vote.” Hence in theory, a dedicated candidate, with altruism at heart, may face far more opposition from an attractive no-hoper.

Underpinning the study, and indeed most projects dealing with the beauty bias, is the phenomenon known as “thin slicing”. In a nutshell, we draw enduring conclusions based on a limited experience. While this is not a bad thing – snap judgements being vital in the ruckus of daily life – we’re too readily swayed by the positive push that beauty exerts.

“There are times when it depresses and bothers me,” sighs French siren Catherine Deneuve, “to see just how easy things are made for a beautiful woman.”

Yet perhaps the final word should go to the plain – or the plain ugly in the case of Albert Einstein. While brains afforded the scientist great advances in physics, the man wasn’t stupid when it came to anatomy. As urban myth has it, Marilyn Monroe wrote to the physicist, proposing they conceive the perfect child, one with his brain and her looks. Albert declined, explaining the poor kid might end up having his body and her brain.



A beautiful face is a human obsession, whether to admire, to maintain – or to calculate. After the Golden Proportions of Ancient Greece (see story), came the work of the Italian masters, Fibonacci and da Vinci.

Fibonacci, during the 1200s, drafted a precise ratio to express facial beauty, where the upper lip is 1 [unit] to the lower lip’s 1.6. In the same vein, where eyebrow to base of nose is 1, then nose base to chin is ideally 1.6 and so on.

Three centuries on, Da Vinci devised the Facial Third Formula, dividing such a beauty as his Mona Lisa into three equal parts: from hairline to eyebrow, from there to the base of the nose, and lastly nose to chin’s tip. Such measures remain as the building blocks of modern plastic surgery.

“It’s quite amazing our body replicates these rules,” says surgeon, Dr Chris Moss. “And if you have a face that’s outside this rule then it looks as though it’s not a beautiful face. If somebody has too long a mid-face then people say I’ve got too long a nose.”

[Sunday Life, April 2007]

This Month's Winner

Well done to Sam for his Emmy makeover in our latest Storm, turning Best Actresses into the best wordplay, and winning a copy of Superstar Crosswords.



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