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Face value? Attractiveness biases financial decisions

People trust a pretty face – but at what cost?

When choosing from a group of financial partners with the goal of making the most money, participants in a Cornell study favored attractive partners over unattractive partners even if they weren’t the most profitable, because they perceived them as more trustworthy.

“You would think the partners that objectively conferred more money would be perceived as more trustworthy,” said Vivian Zayas, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “That’s not what we found. They were perceived as helpful, but they weren’t necessarily perceived as more trustworthy.”

Zayas and Gayathri Pandey, Ph.D. ’18, assistant professor at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, are the co-authors of “What is a Face Worth? Facial Attractiveness Biases Experience-Based Monetary Decision-making,” published May 9 in the British Journal of Psychology.

A large body of prior research has shown attractive people are more likely to be judged favorably, in studies improving their odds of being hired, evaluated positively or given a lighter criminal sentence.

Most studies, however, have focused on single decisions in which participants received no feedback about their choice and had no direct stake in the outcome. Zayas and Pandey’s study, however, finds that a bias toward attractiveness continues to color behavior even in the face of new information that enables positive first impressions to be reassessed over time.

In a pair of experiments, the researchers presented composite images of four male faces or four female faces (all white-looking) and asked study participants – more than 230 undergraduate students – to choose the financial partner who would earn them the most money over 50 to 100 trials.

Of the four potential financial partners, two were programmed to be advantageous – offering smaller initial gains but more money over time – and two disadvantageous, offering larger initial gains but smaller long-term profits. In each category, one partner was attractive and one unattractive, as rated in an independent photo database, though Zayas said the differences were subtle.

Lacking any financial information, participants starting with a hypothetical $2,000 balance initially chose an attractive financial partner a whopping 80% of the time. That finding was consistent with prior work revealing our preference for attractiveness, Zayas said.

Zayas and Pandey next investigated whether that bias would be corrected in a more real-life scenario, as participants learned new information about the financial partners’ profitability – seemingly the only factor relevant to their task.

Each partner selection resulted in a gain or loss that could be tracked as trials progressed. Some partners conferred gains or losses more frequently, but the two advantageous partners were programmed to be equally beneficial, whether attractive or not.

Over 100 trials, the researchers found, participants did learn to choose the advantageous partners.

However, they found that study participants on average were more willing to “forgive” an attractive partner who conferred a loss, re-selecting them more quickly. And they preferred attractive, disadvantageous partners as much or slightly more than unattractive, advantageous partners.

“Thus,” the researchers wrote, “the effect of attractiveness did lead to less optimal decision making.”

Attempting to explain why that might be, Zayas and Pandey considered that research has shown attractiveness may be interpreted not only as a sign of physical health and fertility, but of trustworthiness. In the second experiment, they asked participants who they perceived as most trustworthy and most helpful.

Attractive partners were judged more trustworthy than unattractive partners, while partners who were advantageous or conferred fewer losses were also seen as helpful.

The research adds to an emerging view, the scholars said, that attractive people reap benefits in part because they cue perceptions of trustworthiness, and those perceptions underlie “basic, yet powerful, predispositions.”

“As social beings, we want to know who to trust, and that inference of trust affects how you perceive objective information,” Zayas said. “When you perceive someone as more trustworthy, you’re more likely to downplay any cost they confer to you. That gives them a larger sphere from which to operate.”

Zayas and Pandey said future studies could benefit from using real money to increase participants’ investment. They could also target populations that might be more sensitive to financial ups and downs (such as business students or professionals) or vary the race and gender of the faces presented, to explore how broadly the phenomenon applies.

But Zayas said the new study design ruled out some known causes of bias: self-fulfilling prophesies, in which one’s own high expectations elicit more positive responses from subjects, and rationalizations that a choice made in one context wouldn’t apply to another. The study enabled a straightforward, side-by-side comparison of profitability, she said, isolating the influence of facial attractiveness.

“You’re comparing everybody on the same units – money, gains and losses,” Zayas said. “But nonetheless, these facial cues are still coloring people’s choices.”

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Gillian Smith