Take a look at this woman:
Now answer the five questions below:
1. Do you think this woman is extroverted?
2. Open to new experiences?
3. Conscientious (organized and good at getting things done)?
4. Agreeable (friendly and compassionate)?
If you answered yes to questions 1-4, and no to question 5, you’re like most of the 118 participants in a recent study by psychologists Lihi Segal-Caspi, Sonia Roccas, and Lilach Sagiv. Rather than using stock photos, though, Segal-Caspi and her coauthors recorded video of young women doing neutral things like walking into a room and reading a weather forecast. Then they asked participants to rate how attractive the women were and to guess how much they conformed to each of the five personality traits above.
The result: when participants found a woman attractive (like the lovely stock photo model above), they were more likely to believe she had personality traits many people consider positive: extroversion, openness to new experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. And they were less likely to think she was neurotic, a trait usually considered negative.
However, the study authors also asked the women themselves to complete questionnaires about their personalities. They found — perhaps not surprisingly — that women who were judged attractive by participants were no more or less likely to exhibit extroversion, or any other trait, than women rated as plain. Their perceived attractiveness actually said nothing about their personalities.
In another part of the experiment, though, the study authors asked the women to answer questions about their values — how much importance they put on things like tradition, conformity, security, and achievement. They found that attractive women (or at least those rated attractive by the study participants) were more likely than other women to hold values related to submitting to social expectations (like conformity) and less likely to hold those related to concern for others (like universalism). The participants who watched the videos didn’t pick up on this — they were also asked to guess the women’s values, but their guesses for the most part had no relationship to attractiveness.
The study authors don’t discuss why attractive women might be more conformist or self-centered — maybe women who already live up to society’s standards of beauty are more comfortable trying to live up to other standards as well. They do note, however, that people appear to be wrong when they ascribe positive traits to pretty women: “whereas people hold the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype, our findings suggest that the beautiful strive for conformity rather than independence and for self-promotion rather than tolerance.” That may be bad news for people who consider themselves attractive — but it’s a good reminder for everyone that you should probably judge a woman’s personality by how she actually acts, not whether you think she’s hot.