Are People Who Perceive Themselves As Attractive Prone to Behave Selfishly?

– by Xijing Wang

Although there is a common saying that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, good-looking people still attract the public’s attention easily and are more favored by people across different social domains. For instance, it is not surprising that in the dating market, physical attractiveness is advantageous for both men and women. Good-looking people are more likely to receive attention and popularity, are helped more by others, enjoy better physical and mental health, are more likely to receive job opportunities and are believed to be fit for desirable jobs, earn more money, obtain higher social status, are favored by their teachers in educational settings, and are even supported in the context of criminal and civil proceeding. In fact, a consensus has largely been reached on a phenomenon known as “what is beautiful is good”, which refers to perceivers attributing various positive traits to good-looking individuals.

Despite these positive perceptions, relatively little research has been devoted to examining how attractive individuals actually behave. Would physically attractive people really act in a nice and kind manner as perceived and expected by other people? The theories of social psychology and evolutionary psychology make divergent predictions in this regard. From a social psychological perspective, attractive individuals should internalize the positive stereotypes from perceivers and eventually develop positive behaviors as expected (i.e., the self-fulfilling nature of “what is beautiful is good” and self-interested behavior). In contrast, the evolutionary perspective of attractiveness predicts that attractive individuals would act selfishly because of a sense of entitlement derived from their evolutionary advantage and bargaining power (i.e., the evolutionary perspective of attractiveness and self-interested behavior).

Therefore, the interesting question that remains unknown is whether physical attractiveness can predict self-interested behavior, and if so, in which direction? Recent research published in Evolution and Human Behavior, led by Dr. TENG Fei from South China Normal University and Dr. WANG Xijing from the City University of Hong Kong, has answered this question.

Across a series of five studies with a total of 1,303 participants from the United States and China, participants’ self-perceived attractiveness was measured or manipulated. Then, their self-interested behavioral intention or actual behavior was assessed. In addition, their psychological entitlement was measured or manipulated. Study 1 showed that self-perceived attractiveness was positively associated with self-interested behavioral tendencies and psychological entitlement. Moreover, psychological entitlement could account for the relationship between self-perceived attractiveness and people’s inclination to act in a self-interested manner. Study 2 replicated the findings of Study 1 with Chinese undergraduate students by assessing the participants’ actual self-interested behavior. As such, those who perceived themselves as more attractive allocated themselves more resources; their sense of entitlement accounted for this effect. Study 3 conceptually replicated the findings of Studies 1 and 2 that self-perceived attractiveness could predict self-interested behavioral intention. In addition, it further demonstrated the role of psychological entitlement in this process at a causal level. As such, heightening psychological entitlement could make participants with low self-perceived attractiveness show increased self-interested behavioral intention. The final two studies provided further causal evidence. Participants whose self-perceived attractiveness was temporarily heightened by recalling an incident in which they thought they were physically attractive (Study 4) or by comparing themselves to unattractive others (Study 5) showed increased self-interested behavioral intention and actual behavior in an economic game.

Therefore, theoretically, these findings support the prediction made by the evolutionary perspective on attractiveness: attractiveness, as a biological marker for health, strength, fitness, and fertility, indicates evolutionary advantages and is naturally favored by people across different domains (e.g., as allies, leaders, romantic partners, offspring). Due to their greater bargaining power, attractive individuals may have learned that they may receive more than others and showed a higher level of psychological entitlement. This could subsequently induce them to act in a self-interested manner.

This research also has practical implications: self-perceived attractiveness that was even temporarily induced could amplify self-interested behavior. Prior research has documented that others often treat good-looking individuals favorably. This research suggests that instead of showing reciprocity by treating others nicely, attractive people tend to take those treatments for granted and believe that they are entitled to more. Since self-interested behavior often threatens collective benefits and cooperation vital to positive functioning in human societies, self-interested behaviour should be discouraged. When it comes to attractive individuals, avoiding biases (e.g., not perceiving and treating them in a positively biased manner) could be a (fundamental) solution to reducing self-interested behavior among them.