Washington - New research offers good news and bad news for the “homely” among us. First, the good news: people can’t tell how smart you are by how good you look. The bad news? They think they can.
As reported last month in the journal Plos One, researchers had 40 men and 40 women take a standard intelligence test. Then they photographed the subject’s faces, instructing them “to adopt a neutral, non-smiling expression and avoid facial cosmetics, jewellery, and other decorations”.
Next, 160 strangers reviewed the photographs. Half of the reviewers rated the photos according to how smart the subjects looked, while the other half rated them according to the subjects’ attractiveness.
The researchers found a strong relationship between how attractive people thought a person was and assumptions about their intelligence: the higher the attractiveness rating, the higher the rating for smarts. This relationship was particularly strong when the subjects were female.
But the connection between perceived intelligence and actual intelligence was much less clear. Indeed, there was a significant gender gap: reviewers did pretty well at guessing the actual intelligence of men, but they were completely lost when trying to identify smart women.
Researchers surmised that judging women on their intelligence – rather than their attractiveness – may just not be something people practise very much. “The strong halo effect of attractiveness may thus prevent an accurate assessment of the intelligence of women.”
But it gets weirder. When researchers compared the attractiveness ratings for various subjects with their IQ scores, they found no relationship whatsoever. This suggests that there is absolutely no connection between brains and beauty. But assumptions about a person’s intelligence seem to be based largely on stereotypes related, at least in part, to notions of attractiveness.
To probe this idea further, the researchers constructed “intelligence stereotypes” for both men and women, using the photographs reviewers had rated by level of intelligence.
“Our data suggests that a clear mental image of how a smart face should look does exist for both men and women within the community of human raters,” the researchers concluded. “In both sexes, a narrower face with a thinner chin and a larger prolonged nose characterises the predicted stereotype of high-intelligence, while a rather oval and broader face with a massive chin and a smallish nose characterises the prediction of low intelligence.”
These assumptions carry centuries of cultural baggage. More to the point, they’re simply wrong. The researchers found no relationship between these facial stereotypes and a person’s actual intelligence.
“Men and women with specific facial traits were perceived as highly intelligent,” the researchers concluded. “However, these faces of supposed high and low intelligence probably represent nothing more than a cultural stereotype because these morphological traits do not correlate with the real intelligence of the subjects.”
It’s worth noting that the study was conducted in the Czech Republic, which is overwhelmingly white and troubled by violence against the Roma minority. The researchers say nothing about the race or ethnicity of their subjects or the reviewers.
So where does this leave us? While it’s comforting to know that there’s no real connection between brains and beauty, we nonetheless form opinions of each other as if there were. This can have measurable, real-world consequences.
Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an August 2011 New York Times op-ed that being attractive “helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too) and get better deals on mortgages”. All told, he wrote, the lifetime earnings difference between people at opposite ends of the attractiveness spectrum averages out in beauty’s favour.
Finally, the research suggests one thing everyone can do to boost others’ assessment of our intelligence: smile more.
“There also seems to be a correlation between semblances of emotions of joy or anger in perceptions of high or low intelligence in faces, respectively,” the researchers say. “The ‘high intelligence’ faces appear to be smiling more than the ‘low intelligence’ faces.” – Washington Post