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Pretty Criminals: The Halo Effect and the “Beautiful-is-Good” Stereotype

Beautiful people can get away with murder, literally. Take the case of Amanda Knox for example. Whether or not you believe she is innocent or guilty in the murder of Meredith Kercher, one of the main topics of conversation circling the case was Knox’s looks. People kept commenting that she had a “face like an angel.” News outlets referred to her (and still do) as a “pretty, young student.” Despite her inappropriate behavior at the police station, a story that wasn’t clear and didn’t quite match, her DNA on the suspected murder weapon, etc., the American media just could not accept that this pretty girl might be capable of murder. Her face was plastered on tabloids, usually accompanied by a headline referencing her pretty face and her inability to be a murder. Some people even went as far as to claim that this was the “plight of the pretty” – that the Italian people were picking on her and that their legal system was corrupt.

The Halo Effect – a cognitive bias in which our overall impression of a person influences how we feel about and what we think of their character.

The emphasis on Knox’s appearance and her youth highlights a social construct of beauty and it’s influence on our perception of people… or does it? This has always been the assumed and research-backed answer as to why pretty people get more things – that it is the result of cultural influences. While there is no doubt about the research proving that we perceive attractive people to have an equally attractive personality or traits, new research suggests that this phenomenon goes much deeper than cultural influences. An article for the APA’s Monitor on Psychology (Dingfelder, 2006) journal notes research by Judith Langlois, PhD, who has spent her career researching and studying this phenomenon. Her most recent research involving the observation and measurement of the processing time of attractive and unattractive faces for toddlers compared to adults “suggests that the well-established phenomenon of positive bias toward attractive people may be an unavoidable consequence of the mechanics of human cognition” (Dingfelder, 2006).  It simply takes less time to process attractive faces compared to less attractive ones. Humans are incredibly aesthetically oriented. Ever caught yourself not wanting to buy the “ugly” apple and instead choosing the “pretty” one? What’s the difference, you’re just going to eat it anyway. You would most likely respond with a statement along the lines of “but the pretty one looks like it’ll taste better.” Because we have learned that a pretty apple probably has more flavor, given it’s vibrant color. We have also learned to judge people on their looks as well, because our brains like how they look and because cultural cues and influences tell us that pretty is better. But is it really?

The “Beautiful-is-Good” Stereotype

Physical attractiveness does not equal moral goodness, but it does in our brains. Researchers at Duke University showed college-aged women pictures of men of “varying attractiveness”(Gillis, 2016) and then written information about each man’s moral behavior, be it positive or negative. The researchers hooked the participants up to MRI scanners while they viewed each picture and it’s corresponding information. The section of the brain that lit up most during this process was he medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is located in the front-center of the brain between the eyes. This section “surged with neural activity, not only when the women viewed the faces of attractive men, but also when they viewed the positive statements. To the researchers, this suggested overlap in what are supposed to be two distinct functions—judging attractiveness and assessing moral goodness” (Gillis, 2016).

By now I’m sure everyone knows about Jeremy Meeks, dubbed the “hot felon” by the media. Meeks was arrested on weapons charges but after his mugshot went viral all people seemed to care about were his looks. According to an article in the L.A. Times (Queally, 2015), “Women sent messages promising to help with his bail, which was set at $1 million, and reports surfaced that he had been offered a modeling contract weeks after his arrest.” There were various Facebook groups created in Meeks’s honor, including a fan page that received more than 39,500 likes. Meeks was sentenced to two years in federal prison. He also had a long arrest record and was suspected to be a member of the Northside Gangster Crips. Meeks also has a teardrop tattoo for “doing some things in his past he is not proud of.” Given the various meanings of teardrop tattoos and this statement made by Meeks, it’s a possibility that he earned the tattoo either by killing someone or from one of his previous arrests.

People didn’t care about Jeremy Meek’s charges; they only cared about how attractive they perceived him to be. He is currently signed to a modeling agency. People also didn’t seem to care about the charges and evidence in Amanda Knox’s case, only that she was too pretty to be a possible murderer. This “beautiful-is-good” stereotype governs a part of our behavior; it decides which person we believe to be more reliable or innocent. So next time you find yourself connecting attractiveness to a positive behavior or trait, pause and think about why you’re making that connection. It may change how you judge someone’s character.

Sources:

Dingfelder, S. F. (2006). Pretty faces: Easy on the brain? Monitor on Psychology, 37(9),32. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct06/pretty.aspx

Gillis, C. (2016, March 13). Survival of the prettiest: The strange power of attractive people. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/society/science/the-mysterious-power-of-attractive-people/

Queally, J. (2015, February 6). Jeremy Meeks, whose handsome mugshot went viral, sentenced to prison. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-jeremy-meeks-sentenced-20150206-story.html

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Written by Geneva Fluet

Profile photo of Geneva Fluet

I am currently earning my BA in Psychology with a concentration in child/adolescent development, though I plan on getting my Master's in neuropsychology. I am very pleased to be a contributing writer and a part of the Psyh2Go team. My hobbies include reading (a lot), attempting to write a book, looking up current pysch news and developments, and spending too much time on YouTube and playing video games.

Attachment Theory and Relationships

Pretty Criminals: The Halo Effect and the “Beautiful-is-Good” Stereotype