From the Eye of the Beholder:Attitudes about Physical Attractiveness and their Social and Demographic Correlates

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Principal investigator:

Dalton Conley

New York University



Sample size: 10750

Field period: 06/19/2006-06/26/2006


Current research indicates that attractive individuals are advantaged in employment and hiring decisions (for example: Copley & Brownlow, 1995; Drogosz & Levy, 1996; Jawahar & Mattsson, 2005; Watkins & Johnston, 2000) and obese individuals are disadvantaged in labor market outcomes, such as earnings (Averett & Korenman, 1996; Conley & Glauber, 2005, Register & Williams, 1990). This research also underscores physical appearance as a factor which affects different groups of individuals differently. For example, white women experience stronger negative employment effects of being overweight than African American women do. Despite this research, we do not fully understand the mechanisms that produce group-based effects of physical appearance on socioeconomic outcomes and whether ideals of physical appearance are specific to demographic groups or, rather, are universal. While psychologists have long been interested in this question of universal or culturally specific ideals, their studies are limited because of their use of select samples and their experimental settings which may produce social desirability bias. I propose a study that builds on these previous analyses by providing estimates of the magnitude of social desirability bias and by providing nationally representative estimates of attractiveness perception free from this bias.


I will explore four dimensions of attractiveness—baldness, skin tone, skin blemishing, and body mass—precisely because these dimensions have been most studied by others. Findings from the current study, therefore, will provide insight of importance to other scholars.
Baldness. Studies have found that baldness is associated with decreased perception of attractiveness (Cash, 1990), with an increased perception of maturity (Muscarella & Cunningham, 1996), and with decreased perception of dominance (Roll & Verinis, 1971).
Skin Blemishing and Skin Tone. Studies have found that healthier-looking skin is positively associated with attractiveness perception (Bosse et al., 1976). Some studies have found that skin texture has a greater effect on perception of female attractiveness (Fink, Grammer & Thornhill, 2001), while other studies have shown that skin health has an effect on perception of male attractiveness (Jones et al., 2004). Few studies have explored whether these social perception effects vary by race and gender and by social class.
Body Mass. Kurzban & Weeden (2005) find that body mass significantly affects mate preferences. Other studies report a negative correlation between body mass and attractiveness perception, especially for females (for example: Furnham, Petrides & Constantinides, 2005).

Experimental Manipulations

Stimuli. I have collected photographs at random from the Hot or Not website (with approval from New York University’s Committee on Activities Involving Human Subjects). I am currently employing a professional to alter the photographs along the four dimensions—baldness, skin blemishing, skin tone, and body mass. The altered and non-altered stimuli will be equivalent except for the altered characteristic.


Attractiveness measure


Conley, D. and B. McCabe. 2011. Body Mass Index and Physical Attractiveness: Evidence From a Combination Image-Alteration/List Experiment. Sociological Methods and Research. 40: 6-31.