Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Personality and Physical Attractiveness

Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_715-1

Synonyms

Definitions

Physical attractiveness describes the degree to which a person’s physical features are considered aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. Personality traits are typically defined as descriptions of people in terms of their relatively stable patterns of behaviors, thoughts and emotions. People’s physical attractiveness and personality influences others’ perceptions of them in different ways, and also affects their important life domains, including their career, intimate relationships and health.

Introduction

Physical attractiveness depicts the degree to which a person’s physical features are considered aesthetically pleasing or beautiful. Accordingly, physical attractiveness is much less about physical features of the targets, but more about the perceptual process of the perceivers. Indeed, physical attractiveness is largely determined by a person’s unique thoughts about the world, which is frequently filtered by her/his personality traits. Personality traits are typically defined as descriptions of people in terms of their relatively stable patterns of behaviors, thoughts and emotions, thus reflecting the differences between individuals.

This manuscript aims to review the current knowledge on the relation between personality and physical attractiveness from three aspects: how targets’ physical attractiveness influences perceivers’ evaluation of targets’ personality, how targets’ personality influences perceivers’ judgements of targets’ physical attractiveness, and how targets’ personality and physical attractiveness influence their important life outcomes, including their career, intimate relationships and health.

The Effects of Physical Attractiveness on Personality Evaluation

The impacts of physical attractiveness on people’s evaluation of targets’ personality are well-documented. Indeed, extensive research has demonstrated a robust stereotype that physical attractiveness is positively associated with desirable personality attributes, commonly known as “what is beautiful is good” bias (Dion et al. 1972). For example, attractive individuals are perceived as more sociable, more assertive, happier, smarter, emotionally more stable, and even more successful than unattractive people. Based on the Five-Factor personality model, Segal-Caspi et al. (2012) also reported that objective judges rated attractive women to have more desirable personality traits (i.e., high in Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness, and low in Neuroticism) than less attractive women. Lorenzo et al. (2010) also showed a similar pattern with live interaction paradigm, and they found that both females and males formed more positively first impressions toward physically attractive targets and assumed more desirable personality features possessed by these targets. The reason why people assume attractive individuals owning desirable personality features might be due to their motivation to build relation with these attractive targets, as reported by Lemay et al. (2010) after examining this stereotype in different types of relationships (e.g., romantic relationships and friendships).

However, being attractive does not always help in shaping positive evaluations of the targets. Under some circumstances, being attractive actually backfires. This is particularly true when attractive persons are evaluated by the same sex in romantic relationship settings as well as in job interviews. Concerning the former, Maner et al. (2009) reported that participants described attractive same sex targets more negatively (e.g., horrible, terrible) after being primed with concerns about infidelity. This might be because these attractive same-sex targets are likely to pose potent threats and act as powerful rivals to participants’ own romantic interest, and participants attempt to ward off such threats by associating negative evaluation to these targets. This pattern perfectly echoes the sexual attribution bias (Försterling et al. 2007), which demonstrates that people tend to explain the success of attractive same-sex targets in a derogative way (i.e., with luck more and with ability less) than they explain the success of less attractive same-sex targets, whereas people explain the success of attractive opposite-sex in a glorifying way (i.e., with luck less and with ability more) than when the opposite-sex was unattractive. Obviously, people consider attractive same-sex targets as potential opponents thus derogating them by attributing negative personality characteristics to them, whereas people treat attractive opposite-sex as potential partners of high mate value thus rewarding them by assigning positive features to them. This is also true in organizational settings. Agthe et al. (2011) found that, in job interview scenario, participants perceived attractive same-sex potential job candidates less capable for the job position compared to unattractive same-sex candidates, whereas they demonstrated the reversed pattern regarding their evaluation of opposite-sex job candidates. Agthe et al. (2011) also supported the explanation that people hold negative evaluation toward attractive same-sex targets due to their self-perceived threats by showing the moderation role of people’s self-esteem in their study. More specifically, the differentiated responses to attractive same-sex versus other-sex targets were observed only among participants low in self-esteem, but not among these high in self-esteem. Because high self-esteem helps people to buffer the negative consequences of upward social comparison, and makes them relatively less concerned about the possible threats posed by attractive same-sex targets. By comparison, low self-esteem people have higher desires to avoid the felt threats.

To sum up, the impact of physical attractiveness on personality evaluation is two-sided. Being physically attractive does help individuals to shape positive impressions on others in most neutral social situations (e.g., daily interaction), leading to the assumption of what is beautiful is good, but also prevents individuals getting positive evaluations from same-sex judges in competitive social contexts (e.g., mating market), leading to the assumption of what is beautiful is threatening.

The Effects of Personality on Physical Attractiveness Evaluation

Not only does targets’ physical attractiveness affect perceivers’ judgement of these targets’ personality, targets’ personality are also likely to exert impacts on perceivers’ evaluation of these targets’ physical attractiveness. “What is good is beautiful” is perhaps the most straightforward way of illustrating such stereotype. Regarding personality traits, this stereotype implies that desirable personality traits lead to higher physical attractiveness ratings. For example, participants high in self-reported Extraversion and Agreeableness were rated more attractive by unacquainted judges (Meier et al. 2010). Zhang et al. (2014) further supported this conclusion by using experimental design to manipulate personality and examine its effects on attractiveness rating. Specifically, participants in their study rated the attractiveness of neutral emotional female faces prior to the study, and then again rated the same facial stimuli, but associated with different personality information (i.e., positive information, negative information, or no information), on attractiveness 2 week later. There was no significant difference in attractiveness ratings among the three groups during the first rating, but a significant difference during the second rating. In particular, faces associated with positive information were rated most attractive, followed by no information, and faces with negative information were considered least attractive. Thus, the possession of desirable personality features can help to foster more positive perceptions regarding one’s physical attractiveness.

However, people might differ in their ways of defining desirable personality features. For instance, though it is generally considered that a person high in Extraversion is desirable, some people might disagree and consider the opposite as appealing, which is termed idiographic preference. Idiographic preference differs from consensual preference in that the former reflects the unique preference of each individual and thus distinguishes individuals from each other. Accordingly, idiographic preference should have greater impacts on people’s evaluation of targets attractiveness in the way that individuals should give more credits to targets’ physical attractiveness if the targets fit their idiographic preference in personality features. Indeed, this line of reasoning has been supported by a study showing that people who valued certain personality traits rated faces reflecting these traits more attractive compared to these who did not value this trait (Little et al. 2006). For example, these who valued assertiveness in partners rated assertive faces more attractive, and these who admired easy-going partners evaluated easy-going faces more attractive.

Besides targets’ personality characteristics, perceivers’ personality traits also influence their evaluation of targets’ physical attractiveness. For example, highly extraverted women tend to rate masculine men more attractive compared to their less extraverted counterparts (Welling et al. 2009). This might be due to higher levels of Extraversion is associated with higher mate quality among women, such as more attractive face and higher social status, and women of high mate quality tend to prefer more masculine men (Penton-Voak et al. 2003). Not only Extraversion, perceivers’ Agreeableness and Openness are also shown to influence their judgements of targets’ physical attractiveness. Swami et al. (2008) reported that participants with higher levels of Agreeableness and Openness tended to perceive a wider range of body sizes as attractive, such as bodies of heavier weight. This might be because agreeable people tend to have a positive perception of others in interpersonal interaction, leading them to make more lenient judgments of others’ physical appearance, and open-minded people are more acceptable toward different ideas and resistant toward conventional norms, enabling them to appreciate different types of beauty even though they may contradict the traditional convictions.

Similarity in personality features is another factor influencing perceivers’ ratings of targets’ physical attractiveness, and individuals tend to perceive similar others more attractive. For example, when evaluating some hypothetical profiles of potential partners in terms of their attachment characteristics, individuals high in anxiety are more attracted to potential partners characterized with anxious attachment style, whereas individuals high in avoidance found profiles featured with avoidant attachment style more attractive (Klohnen and Luo 2003). People are not only attracted to hypothetical targets sharing similar personality features, they actually also prefer similarity in reality and actively seek out similar others to construct their interpersonal relations, such as friendship and intimate relationships (e.g., Bahns et al. 2017; Liu et al. 2018). Thus, sharing similar personality attributes with the targets makes people to perceive these targets more attractive compared to dissimilar ones. Considering the importance of similarity in relationship formation, people might also found targets resembling their ideal partners’ personality features more attractive. Indeed, Eastwick et al. (2011) reported that participants were more attracted toward hypothetical targets whose personality traits were manipulated to resemble participants’ depictions of their ideal partners compared to targets who were less resembling.

To sum up, several factors associated with personality can influence the evaluation of a target’s physical attractiveness, including targets’ own personality, perceivers’ personality, similarity in personality features between targets and perceivers, and similarity in personality features between targets and perceivers’ ideal partners.

The Effects of Physical Attractiveness and Personality on One’s Life Outcomes

Physical attractiveness and personality not only influence each other in a mutual way, they, dependently or independently, also have significant impact on many important life outcomes, such as one’s career, intimate relationship, and health condition.

It is quite clear that being attractive is good for one’s career. Substantial studies have shown that being attractive is positively associated with job related outcomes (See a review by Hosoda et al. 2003). For example, attractive individuals are more likely to be evaluated as qualified job candidates, to be hired and promoted, to receive higher starting salaries, and to achieve success. In a similar vein, having desirable personality features is also good to one’s career. Perhaps the most consistent finding is about the positive relation between Conscientiousness and job performance. Barrick et al. (2001) conducted a meta-analysis by examining all the meta-analytic studies of the relation between job performance and the Big Five personality traits, and again confirmed the conclusion that Conscientiousness was the most powerful predictor of job performance assessed in various ways, such as sales performance, managerial performance, supervisor ratings. By comparison, the relation between other personality traits and job performance is narrower and weaker. For example, Extraversion and Emotional stability (low levels of Neuroticism) are positively related to training performance, police, and teamwork, whereas Agreeableness and Openness are only positively associated with teamwork.

In the area of intimate relationships, attractive people also enjoy many benefits, such as having more dates, having dates with higher mate value, getting married earlier, being happier with their marriages and having more stable marriages. For example, Olderbak et al. (2017) asked young adults to view videos of opposite-sex targets talking about themselves, and then rate their romantic attraction toward these targets. They found that only participants’ perception of these targets’ physical attractiveness, compared to other characteristics of the targets (e.g., personality traits, life history strategy), predicted their attraction to these targets in the way that participants expressed more interest in highly attractive targets. Not surprisingly, people with desirable personality features tend to enjoy the same privileges as these attractive persons. Actually, a recent meta-analysis reported that relationship satisfaction was positively associated with higher levels of Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and lower levels of Neuroticism (Malouff et al. 2010). Though Malouff et al. (2010) did not found a positive relation between Openness and relationship satisfaction, some indirect support for such relation is suggested by a study showing that couples are more satisfied with their relationships after participating novel and arousing (compared to mundane) activities (Aron et al. 2000). Noticeably, people high in Openness are willing to try new things and to go out of rituals, thus contributing to better relationships by being capable of adding novelty to their relationships. Thus, it seems that people who are physically attractive and have desirable personality traits should profit the most in their intimate relationships. Interestingly, intimate relationship can also influence people’ perception of their partners concerning physical attractiveness and personality features, suggested by the theory of motivated cognition, which proposes that people perceive their partners in their desired ways (Fletcher and Kerr 2010; Lemay and Clark 2015). Relating to the current topic, people tend to perceive their partners more attractive than they actually are (Barelds-Dijkstra and Barelds 2008) and have more positive qualities than what seems to be warranted by reality (Murray et al. 1996).

Concerning health condition, physical attractiveness and desirable personality traits both contribute to better well-being. For example, attractive people are shown to be less depressed, happier, and healthier. This could be explained from evolutionary theories proposing that indicators of physical attractiveness (e.g., clean skin, symmetric faces and bodies) are, indeed, manifestations of genetic fitness, and human develop the universal preference for beautiful partners over the course of evolutionary history to improve their chance of successful reproduction (Grammer et al. 2003). In terms of personality, most studies have examined the relation between personality traits and health relying on the Five-Factor framework (See a review by Ozer and Benet-Martínez 2006). In general, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness are found to be positively associated with health, such as lower mortality and lower risks of physical and mental illness. Such findings could be explained by the features captured by these traits. Being extraverted, such as being sociable and enthusiastic, enables people to experience more positive emotions in general and build larger social support system to rely on once they get into trouble. Being agreeable, such as being easy-going, gentle and forgiving, makes people less likely to get angry, greatly protecting them from diseases associated with anger, such as inflammation and cardiovascular diseases (Suls 2013). Being conscientious, such as being disciplined and organized, fosters the development of good habits that are critical to health, such as eating healthily, exercising regularly and shying away from unhealthy conductions (e.g., smoking, drinking). By contrast, being highly neurotic, such as being emotionally instable and hyper-sentimental, renders people to engage in behaviours endangering their health, such as binge eating, substance abuse, unsafe driving, and risky sexual behaviours. The results concerning Openness are more mixed. Though many studies report no clear association between Openness and general health, other studies suggest that high levels of Openness can risk people’s safety due to their higher desire for thrilling but dangerous activities, such as parachuting, bungee jumping, sky diving etc.

To sum up, both physical attractiveness and personality have an impact on important life outcomes, including career, intimate relationships, and health, and people who are physically attractive and have desirable personality features tend to enjoy the benefits of being more likely to succeed in their careers, have satisfying relationships, and be in good health.

Conclusion

Overall, physical attractiveness and personality influence each other in a mutual way. On the one side, targets’ physical attractiveness affects perceivers’ judgements of their personality in the way that physically attractive targets get more positive personality evaluations in most neutral social situations, whereas more negative evaluations from same-sex judges in competitive social contexts. On the other side, targets’ physical attractiveness is also influenced by personality features of targets as well as perceivers. Besides, similarity in personality features between targets and perceivers and similarity in personality features between targets and perceivers’ ideal partners, also exerts impacts on perceivers’ evaluation of targets’ physical attractiveness. Finally, both physical attractiveness and personality features have an impact on targets’ life in terms of their career, intimate relationships, and health, and people who are physically attractive and have desirable personality features tend to have more benefits in these life domains.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationNortheast Normal UniversityChangchunChina

Section editors and affiliations

  • John F. Rauthmann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversität zu LübeckLübeckGermany