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Mindful : August 2013
The Beautiful and the Good Of the many entries under the heading “life is not fair,” surely one of the most egregious is the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype. One of our strongest cognitive biases, it ma kes us ascribe to physically attractive people a formidable array of positive traits. According to studies going back 40 years, we assume that attractive adults a re more compe- tent, better adjusted, powerful, mentally healthy, intelligent, and more socially skilled tha n less attractive ones. This “what is beautiful is good” ste- reotype manifests in a slew of real-life situations and is by no means a one-study wonder: it has been documented in piles of research. Taken as a whole, the studies show that this is one of the more robust cognitive biases operating in the human mind. It may also be one of the oldest. The Greek poet Sappho is credited with first asserting, 2,600 yea rs ago, that “what is beautiful is good,” while in 1882 the German romantic poet Friedrich Schiller wrote that “physical beauty is the sign of an interior beauty, a spiritual and moral beauty.” To conduct studies of attractiveness bias, researchers don’t t ry to solve the culturally laden mystery of why people in pa rticula r cultures find some faces “attractive” and others not. Their assump- tion is simply that in any given time and place, some faces are generally deemed beautiful, others are regarded as so-so, and still others as decidedly unatt ractive. To probe whether people associate physical attractiveness with positive Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Illustration by Malin Rosenqvist What are our brains doing when we assume that someone who’s beautiful on the outside must be beautiful on the inside? Sharon Begley investigates. 30 mindful August 2013 mind/body