You know how confident you are when you feel like you look good. A week of regular workouts and an application of the latest age-defying cream, and you're polished enough to take on the world. A hair mishap or a shaving blunder, on the other hand, can make you want to stay hidden behind your computer all day.
Now researchers have found that your perception of your own physical attractiveness has an even greater effect on your mindset than previously suspected. Professor Margaret Neale and doctoral student Peter Belmi of Stanford Graduate School of Business found that seeing yourself as physically attractive leads you to believe you belong in a higher social class.
The series of five studies conducted by Neale and Belmi, with participants that included both men and women, has important implications for research on inequality. If you believe you are attractive, you tend to think you belong in a higher social class yourself and believe, accordingly, that hierarchies are a legitimate way for organizing people and groups. You also are more likely to believe people lower down in a hierarchy are there because they deserve to be. The research also showed that self-perceived physical attractiveness mattered more to people's perception of their social rank than their self-perceived goodness — qualities like empathy and integrity — did.
Many people "see the social world as fundamentally stratified not only on the basis of who has wealth, education, and occupational prestige, but also on the basis of who is beautiful and attractive," Neale and Belmi wrote.
Because your perception of your place in a social or organizational hierarchy is so important, it well may be worthwhile to invest money and time in small changes that let you see the image you want when you look in the mirror every morning.
"These small changes can give me an edge. My perception of my looks matters," said Neale, whose work focuses primarily on negotiation and team performance. "That could have an impact on how I present myself."
The findings may lend insights for the workplace. A manager thinking of himself as attractive on any given day could be more likely to believe that his underlings are further down in the hierarchy not because they hadn't been given a chance, but because they lacked talent or ambition or had not made an effort.
This research is the first to draw an explicit connection between people's perceptions of their own physical attractiveness and their attitudes toward inequality and hierarchies. Among other things, it helps establish how malleable people's views of inequality are.
To test the connection between people's beliefs about their physical attractiveness and their attitudes toward inequality, the researchers asked their study participants to write about a time when they felt more or less attractive, and then questioned whether the participants agreed with statements such as, "Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups," and "Lower wages for women and ethnic minorities simply reflect lower skill and education level."
The mere memories of bad-hair days or the times a good-looking date smiled in their direction affected the way the participants viewed inequality. Considering the former kind of memory, study participants were more likely to see inequality as a problem. Immersed in the latter, they embraced the idea of hierarchies.
"What's surprising is that we find that most people seem to endorse hierarchy when they think they're attractive and oppose it when they think they're not," Belmi said. "Why would people's stance on inequality shift so quickly depending on whether they think they are attractive?"
Belmi began the research after he noticed that Americans' colossal spending on personal grooming kept up despite the recession. Americans spent at least $200 billion on their physical appearance in 2008 — and continue to up the ante. Cosmetic surgery is now the fastest-growing medical expenditure. And, today, Americans are willing to spend more on personal grooming than on their reading material, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
If people were willing to keep spending on beauty products in the face of economic hardship, Belmi reasoned, there might be a reason why.
The research found that the mirror effect held true for study participants regardless of gender or ethnicity. Feeling attractive changed their own views of where they fell in the hierarchy, and where others should fall.
"Everyone has had the experience of feeling attractive — or unattractive," said Neale. "Other researchers have examined how others' notions of our physical attractiveness affects us; what we looked at was the impact of how you felt about yourself."
Belmi and Neale's research doesn't address how cultural stereotypes of beauty — such as, in the United States, having lighter skin and straight hair — might be internalized and lead to self-stereotyping. But if you feel you are unattractive or don't fit the cultural stereotype, you may also feel that you belong in a lower social class, Belmi said.
The researchers also found that self-perceptions of attractiveness even affected how likely you are to give money to a social inequality cause, in this case, the Occupy movement. Those who were led to believe that they were attractive were less likely to donate. Two studies tested whether self-perceptions of two other characteristics — empathy and integrity — made a difference in how people viewed their social class. The answer: no.
The idea of beauty has long been linked to power. Neale and Belmi gave their paper the title "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Fairest of Them All," a line used in the fairy tale Snow White, by the queen who asks her mirror whether she is the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. The paper is to be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
The finding that your assessment of yourself shapes your view of yourself and others puts power into your hands. Next time you're facing a situation that calls for you to present yourself in the best light — and perhaps a few notches up on the organizational ladder from where you normally perceive yourself to be — you might try a new strategy, Neale suggests. Just before the meeting or interview, remember a time when you felt attractive, and then let that memory change how you interact with others by reframing what you see as your place in the social hierarchy.
Margaret Neale is the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, and Peter Belmi is a doctoral student in organizational behavior at Stanford GSB.