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Beauty is only skin deep

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Is beauty really skin deep?

‘Beauty is only skin deep’ is an idiom used to imply that a person’s character is more important than their physical appearance. The phrase also suggests that beauty refers to physical attractiveness alone, which is only skin deep, and that someone’s beauty and character are not related.Few people would deny that physical attractiveness has a role to play in the early stages of a relationship or just in initial attraction. The importance of physical attractiveness in new relationships has been demonstrated by Walster et al. (1966). They randomly paired men and women for a blind date and measured intelligence, various personality factors and physical attractiveness (decided by four independent judges). They found that only physical attractiveness predicted whether they would want to go out on a second date.

However, this is only in the early stages of meeting someone in which, you could argue, that physical attractiveness is all you can really tell about a person. So does this feature of ourselves also determine how attractive we are and how we are perceived after we’ve known someone for a long time. McNulkty et al. (2008) found that physical attractiveness does also predict the success of marriages to a certain extent. Husbands, who were considered more physically attractive than their wives, reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. Also, relative differences between partners’ levels of attractiveness was important in predicting marital behaviour whereby when the wife was more attractive, both spouses behaved more positively though when the husband was more attractive, they both behaved more negatively in their relationships. This suggests that physical attractiveness is not only important in predicting the success of new relationships but that relative physical attractiveness also plays a role in the success of long-term relationships.

In some ways this is contrary to what we like to believe about ourselves, that we’re not shallow and don’t continue to judge people based on their physical attractiveness after getting to know them. A possible explanation for the continued use of physical attractiveness as an important attribute in judging someone’s beauty is the halo effect. Edward Thorndike coined the term, the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias whereby our judgment of a person’s character can be influenced, unconsciously, by other irrelevant attributes of that person. There are many examples of this robust effect; one particularly relevant example is a study by Landy and Sigall (1974).

They showed that female student’s essays were judged, by male students, to be of a higher quality when the essay included a photo showing the essay writer to be physically attractive rather than unattractive. Perhaps we unconsciously judge people to be nicer, as well as better essay writers, when we consider them to be more physically attractive.

Despite all this, a person’s character does seem to play a role in how attractive we perceive them to be though maybe this is only in extreme cases. If you have a very unpleasant character then no matter how physically attractive you are, the halo effect may be unable to influence someone into believing you’re nice. Physical attractiveness is only skin deep but it does seem to affect our opinion on someone’s inner beauty- so maybe beauty is not as skin deep as we thought.

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