Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Beautiful People Are Happier, Finds a Sort of Weird Study

How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?

We already know that pretty people make more money, get better jobs, and are more likely to be conservative. The newest study making the rounds says that pretty people are happier, too. (Full text here.) Compiling data from five different studies, some of them longitudinal, researchers Daniel Hamermesh and Jason Abrevaya found that people rated as more attractive also fared better on happiness as reported through a variety of measures. “These effects are not huge,” they write, “but by the standards of the labor, education and health literatures they are not tiny.”

I could comment on the findings of the study, but really, what would I say? They’re unsurprising, if for no other reason than the domino effect: Happy people are more likely to engage in self-care, making them appear more attractive. And, yes, we’re drawn to symmetrical features and proportional bodies and all sorts of things that science loves to quantify and that I, as a non-scientist, am left feeling sort of hapless about. What I can comment on is the methodology—which isn’t terrible, but which raises some questions worth asking.

1) Of the five studies used in this aggregate study, four relied upon the attractiveness opinion of one person. That is, the bulk of the data of what constitutes beauty in these studies was decided by one person alone. In the fifth study, a panel of 12 people looked at high school graduation photographs and rated them, and the people in the photographs answered questions relating to their happiness...35 and 42 years after the photos were taken. In one of the single-rater studies, people doing the rating were elementary schoolteachers rating their own 7- and 11-year-old students. 

I’m not saying the study is flawed from a scientific point of view; in fact, the study tried to control for these factors. But to call this an aggregate study that actually reports on objective measures of beauty is deeply flawed. (My own recent experience of inadvertently having AOL users essentially rate my face showed just that—same face, same picture, called everything from gorgeous to ugly.) Even if interviewers were instructed on not skewing results based on their own personal taste preferences, when asked to put a person on a five-point scale (“Strikingly handsome or beautiful” to “Quite plain” and then “Homely”), how could anyone not use their discretion?

2) Even if there were such a thing as objective beauty, and there were a uniquely qualified person who could rate each and every one of us, most of us don’t perceive beauty as a static quality. It’s interesting to note that only one of the studies used photographs as the rating tool. Others were all in person; in three of the studies, interviewers were rating subjects they presumably had only met in this clinical setting. (And then there’s the bizarro teachers-rating-kids angle—this before teachers were investigated for publicly mocking their students’ hairstyles.) One of the interviewer/subject studies had raters assign a number to the subject both before and after the interview, an astute acknowledgment of the ways in which we naturally adjust our perception of beauty according to how much we like the person.

So given this, the researchers’ note about the shortfalls of their sample studies is puzzling: ”The best possible measure would average the ratings by large numbers of individuals who have no physical contact with a set of subjects who are dressed the same way and have the same standard facial expression.”

I see their point here, sure, and my own perverse curiosity makes me yearn to see that hypothetical data. But to call this the “best possible measure” is troubling. Setting aside the question of why we’re all so eager to quantify beauty, having such a depersonalized measure would ensure that we’re essentially looking at genes, not at people—that we’re measuring beauty by who has the largest eyes, or the daintiest nose, or the fullest (but not too full!) lips, instead of whose intense magnetism makes those around them feel as though they’re gazing upon a beautiful person. I’m not talking inner beauty here—I’m talking pheromones, and presence, and gaze, and the kind of personality that reveals itself when not even a word is spoken. I’m talking the sort of beauty that is sensed through a shot to the limbic system, not the filter of one’s eyes: That kind of beauty is always going to draw attention. To focus only on genes—and what else are we observing, under the proposed “best possible measure”?—comes uncomfortably close to eugenics, and lest you think I’m being dramatic, take a look at the eerie 1852 Classification of Noses, which links physical characteristics with personality traits, and which happens to have been a favorite of major players of the Third Reich.

3) More subjects were grouped as being above-average in attractiveness than as below-average. (Canadians in particular were less willing to call out subjects as being less than average in looks. They really are more polite than Americans, aren’t they?) Obviously it’s statistically impossible for more than half of the subjects to be above-average in attractiveness, which just points to how unquantifiable beauty is. The numbers here tell their own lie. What we mean by “average” is not the average of the ugliest and the most beautiful; it’s an absence of the remarkable. And yet we can't get enough of the idea that beauty exists on a 1-10 scale, à la Hot or Not or just the mythical strut down fraternity row. 

4) Women were more likely than men to reap more happiness from their good looks alone, as opposed to reaping happiness from the second-hand benefits that looks bring according to this study and others (higher income, better job prospects, happier marriages). This is unsurprising, given the premium placed on women’s looks—and it’s also being reported, so yay for that. But what’s not being reported is that there wasn’t a consistent gender difference in happiness levels. Isn’t the story here, then, that women receive less satisfaction from supposedly gender-neutral happiness factors—money, job, relationship—than men?