Beauty in Mind: The Effects of Physical Attractiveness on Psychological Well-Being and Distress

Abstract

Attractive people enjoy many social and economic advantages. Most studies find effects of attractiveness on happiness or life satisfaction, but based on traditional cross-sectional approaches. We use a large longitudinal survey consisting of a sample of male and female high school graduates from Wisconsin followed from their late teens to their mid-1960s. The panel construction of the data and the fact that interviews of the siblings of the respondents are available allow us to analyze the effects of physical appearance on psychological well-being (human flourishing) and ill-being (distress and depression) conditioning on unobserved individual heterogeneity via random effects. We find a significant positive relationship between measures of physical attractiveness (greater facial attractiveness at high school, and lower BMI and greater height in middle age) and a measure of psychological well-being, and a significant negative relationship between measures of physical attractiveness and distress/depression. These effects are slightly smaller when we adjust for demographics and mental ability but, with the exception of height, remain significant. Our results suggest that attractiveness impacts psychological well-being and depression directly as well as through its effects on other life outcomes.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Our proxy for mental ability is respondents’ scores on the Henmon-Nelson test of mental ability when they were approximately 18 years old.

  2. 2.

    Some research suggests that the effects of physical attractiveness on well-being need not be linear (Tovée et al. 2006; Courtiol et al. 2010). For example, taller men and women of average height are considered more attractive than short men and tall/short women. We tested for nonlinear effects of physical attractiveness by including square terms for all physical attractiveness variables. We found little evidence of non-linear effects, however.

  3. 3.

    Interaction effects between gender and the physical attractiveness measures in the models in Table 2 were not significant.

  4. 4.

    We have run additional analyses using the multiple imputation methods (Graham 2009) implemented in Stata to handle missing values on those of our explanatory variables that have the lowest number of observations (BMI, height, and number of illnesses, see Table 1). We have run all the models presented in Tables 2 and 3 using 20 imputations of missing values for these three variables (which means that we increase the effective sample size by about 1000 in the models presented in Table 2 and by about 700–800 in the models presented in Table 3). The effects of the attractiveness and control variables in these models are almost identical to the ones presented in Tables 2 and 3, which suggests that there is no systematic pattern in the missing values which influences our results (available on request).

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Acknowledgments

We use data from the WLS of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since 1991, the WLS has been supported by the National Institute on Aging (AG-9775 AG-21079 and AG-033285), with additional support from the Vilas Estate Trust, the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A public use file of data is available from the WLS, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, Wisconsin 53706 and at http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/wlsresearch/data/. We thank Danielle Barry and Lauren Haley for assistance.

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Correspondence to Nabanita Datta Gupta.

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All authors have contributed equally to this work. Authors are listed in alphabetical order.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 4.

Table 4 Correlations between main variables

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Datta Gupta, N., Etcoff, N.L. & Jaeger, M.M. Beauty in Mind: The Effects of Physical Attractiveness on Psychological Well-Being and Distress. J Happiness Stud 17, 1313–1325 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-015-9644-6

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Keywords

  • Physical attractiveness
  • Psychological well-being
  • Distress
  • Longitudinal survey
  • Random effects
  • Sibling differences