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Mindful : August 2013
mind/body traits, they determine which faces those in a particular study—urban, educated Westerners living in the ea rly 21st cen- tury, say, or rural-dwelling Japanese in the late 20th century—will find attractive. To do that, they ask a panel of adults from the same demographic to score faces—science’s version of “who’s hot and who’s not.” Once people have decided that an individual is attractive, the mental gates are thrown open to a plethora of beliefs and assumptions. In a groundbreaking 1972 study, people guessed that attractive strangers possessed a range of desirable personality traits, venturing that they were probably sincere, honest, altruistic, exciting, genuine, warm, sociable, kind, and more. The subjects also expected the at tractive strangers’ lives to be happier and more successful than those of less at tractive strangers. In studies where participants did not know they were part of a research project, people were more willing to help an attractive person than a homely one mail a university application a nd donated more to attractive people who had an emergency. Subsequent studies have found that we even give attractive people more room on sidewalks, are less likely to ask them for identification when they want to purchase alcohol, and, in mock rape trials, a re less likely to judge them guilty. In real life, at tractive defendants get more lenient sentences, according to studies going back to the 1980s. Something more than cultural learn- ing is going on here, since even babies manifest a version of the beautiful-is- good stereotype. In one classic study, researchers led by psychologist Judith Langlois of the University of Texas at Austin showed one-year-olds a cartoon in which a ball trying to climb a hill is helped or hindered by a squa re. Just outside the frame of the cartoon were two photos of faces, one beautiful a nd one not. When the square was helpful, the little kids’ eyes shot to the pretty face. When the square blocked the ball, they looked at the ugly face, apparently associating positive events with attrac- tive people and negative ones with unat- tractive ones. Why do our minds work this way? One clue is that babies as young as two months old prefer to look at attrac- tive faces, found Langlois. At that age, children haven’t had much opportunity to absorb their culture’s aesthetic ideals; it’s probably safe to say they haven’t been exposed to America’s Next Top Model yet. Instead, the preference might reflect something about the mind’s information- processing machinery: that the mind prefers objects that require the least processing effort by the visual regions of the brain. And attractive faces are easy on the brain. Both preschoolers and adults can identify an attractive face—that is, they can tell that it is indeed a face and not, say, a plate of fruit—more quickly than they ca n correctly categorize ugly faces. When Langlois displayed faces that had been ma nipulated by a computer to be unat tractive, adults and kids both took a few fractions of a second longer to recog- nize the unattractive faces as faces than to do so for at tractive ones. This lends support to the idea that processing homely faces requires more cognitive resources than processing pret- ty ones, but Langlois and her colleagues then got even stronger evidence: when they measured the electrical activity in the brains of adults and four-month- olds, they found higher activity when the participants looked at unat tractive faces. It is a rule of thumb in neuroscience that higher brain activity during a task is a ma rker of more effort being expended. If beautiful faces take fewer cognitive resources to process, as this research suggests, that may lay the foundation for the beautiful-is-good effect. “ When something is good in one measure,” says psychologist Lihi Segal-Caspi of Israel’s Open University, “we attribute other good traits to it.” Oddly, resea rch on the beautiful-is- good stereotype hadn’t gotten a round to asking if it’s accurate. Maybe beautiful people truly are kinder, more sociable, conscientious, a nd all the rest? One could imagine that being beautiful in a society that values beauty might give you the self-confidence to be sociable and open to novel experiences, as well as the positive life experiences to be conscientious. To probe how well the positive traits we ascribe to beautiful people corre- spond to reality, scientists in Israel ran a study in which they recruited 118 female college students to play “targets” and 118 students (of both sexes) to be “judges.” Each target entered a room, walked around a table, and read a weather forecast. Each judge watched a video- tape of this and then evaluated the ta rget’s at tractiveness and guessed her personality traits. Women rated as attractive “were per- ceived as having more socially desirable personality traits, such as being agree- able, extroverted, open to experience, and conscientious,” said Segal-Caspi, who led the study. Score another for the what-is-beautiful-is-good stereotype. But were the judges correct? No. When the researchers compared the targets’ actual (self-reported) traits to judges’ guesses about them, it was one big mismatch, the resea rchers reported last year in the journal Psychological Science. Attractive women were no more likely to have desirable persona lity traits, though the judges believed they did. “Attractive and less attractive women didn’t differ in their personality traits,” says Segal-Caspi. We may not be able to stop our minds from making the illogical beautiful = good leap, but being awa re of this deeply ing rained habit of thought ca n be the first step in reining it in. This isn’t just about fairness; it’s also about not being snookered—by the attractive used-car dealer steering us toward a lemon or the gorgeous saleswoman on the verge of saddling us with a four-figure pair of sunglasses. Knowing about the mind’s cognitive biases gives us a chance to override them. ● Studies have found that people are more willing to help attractive people and even give them more room on sidewalks. Attractive defendants are less likely to be convicted, and when they are, they get more lenient sentences. 32 mindful August 2013 IS MINDFULNESS GOOD FOR BUSINESS? Doctor Not Listening? 5 ways to change that Welcome to Mindful Your Guide to Less Stress & More Joy How a Mother Stopped Teens From Hurting Themselves Healthy Mind Healthy Life How Working with Your Mind Is the Key to Well-Being The Science of Changing Your Brain APRIL 2013 mindful.org When you subscribe to Mindful, you will: • Discover practical, effective tools for everyday living • Learn about the latest brain science and the many ways mindfulness is changing our society • Enjoy better health and relief from stress • Improve your performance and capacity at work • Deepen the relationships in your life • Be inspired by stories of other mindful people like you Mindful is the groundbreaking new magazine dedicated to helping you live mindfully. It’s who you are Don’t miss the next great issue of Mindful. Mail the attached card or call toll-free 1-855-492-1675. Subscribe online at www.mindful.org. You want the best for your family and friends. 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