Let’s say you interview a candidate for a managerial position in your company. She’s incredibly smart, with an IQ in the 95th percentile. Because she’s so smart, you conclude that she’ll make a great manager. You hire her.
What mistake have you just made? I usually call it the halo effect, a term coined by the psychologist Edward Thorndike. You form a favorable impression about a person – because she’s smart – and therefore assume that she would have other positive attributes – like being a good manager. It’s as if she were wearing a halo. The fallacy is that the attribute you observe may not be related to the attribute you assume. In our example, just being smart doesn’t necessarily mean the candidate will be a good manager – it takes a lot more than intelligence.
We often see the halo effect with physical attractiveness. (The technical term is the physical attractiveness stereotype). There’s been a wealth of research that shows that attractive people are generally more successful than less attractive people. You might expect this in the fashion industry, but it also seems to be true in politics, law, business, and medicine – fields where physical beauty wouldn’t seem to be related to performance. (For a general overview of such research, click here).
Until recently, I’ve assumed that the physical attractiveness stereotype is just a special case of the halo effect. People assume that an attractive person is also good at other (often unrelated) activities. Because observers make that assumption, the attractive person may get more opportunities to advance than a less attractive person. It’s not the beautiful person’s fault. It’s a cognitive bias from observers.
But what if it’s not? What if the genes that make a person attractive also make him or her more athletic, more competent, and more intelligent? What if beautiful people really are more capable than us average shmoes?
Erik Postma’s recent research seems to point in exactly that direction. Postma studied the relationship between attractiveness and success in the Tour de France bicycle race. If physical attractiveness separates the winners from the losers in such a grueling event, it would strongly suggest that the underlying mechanism that causes attractiveness also provides other advantages as well. Maybe beautiful people really are more capable.
And that’s exactly what Postma found. Postma asked 816 people (72% female) to rate the attractiveness of 80 riders in the 2012 Tour de France. He then correlated attractiveness to success in the race. After a lot of statistical manipulation, he found that “the top 10% of cyclists in the race were reckoned 25% more attractive than the bottom 10%.” (Postma’s original article is here. Popular summaries are here, here, and here. For an interview with Postman about his article, click here.)
As always, there’s still a lot to learn. For one thing, only men were rated. Does the same effect apply to women? Who knows? Additionally, women rated attractiveness somewhat differently than men. The riders rated most attractive by women were among the top cyclists in terms of overall endurance. The riders rated most attractive by men tended to be stronger at sprint events, where speed is more important than endurance. Why the difference? Again, who knows?
What does it all mean? It’s not completely clear but attractive people may just be more capable than less attractive people. The evidence is not strong but it’s enough to make me think that I should get a facelift before my next bike race.