There’s something wonderfully lyrical about the idea that beauty and generosity are inherently linked. Perhaps the classical Greek poet Sappho said it best: “He who is fair to look upon is good, and he who is good will soon be fair also.”
Numerous studies over the years have demonstrated that giving and perceived attractiveness are intertwined. Yet for perhaps the first time ever, just published research has documented a clear link between generosity and physical beauty.
First, some background. Since the 1920s social scientists have documented the “halo effect.” This is the bias most of us have in favor of those who are physically attractive. When we see someone who is good looking, we tend to assume they have other positive characteristics even before we know anything about them. For example, we assume that the pretty woman we just met must also be charming and intelligent. Upon meeting a handsome man, we immediately conclude he is insightful and trustworthy as well. It’s as if people who are attractive walk around with a halo, resulting in positive personality traits being ascribed to them simply because they are good looking.
Sadly, I do not suffer from the halo effect.
Interestingly, researchers have also long documented the halo effect in reverse. Essentially those who do good things are perceived to be more physically attractive than an objective analysis would otherwise conclude. The quintessential experiment is to ask a study group to rate physical attractiveness simply by looking at pictures of people. Then show those same pictures to a second study group, only this time tell them stories about the generous and giving things those people have done. Inevitably, the people in the pictures are rated as significantly better looking by the second study group. When someone gets the reputation for being generous, they tend to be perceived as better looking than they really are.
If you need further evidence of the efficacy of this halo effect in reverse, note that my working in philanthropy is the only logical explanation for my lovely and charming wife Cari remaining married to me for the last 25 years.
What’s different with the latest research is that for the first time it separated out physical attractiveness and giving behaviors. “The Good-looking Giver Effect: The Relationship Between Doing Good and Looking Good” was published earlier this year in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. Researchers Sara Konrath from Indiana University and Femida Handy of the University of Pennsylvania considered whether generous people are more likely to be rated as physically attractive even if we didn’t know that they were generous people. It turns out that they are.
“We find a ‘good-looking giver’ effect – that more physically attractive people are more likely to engage in giving behaviors, and vice versa,” write Konrath and Handy. “Thus, in ecologically valid real-world samples, people who do good are also likely to look good.”
Perhaps the most fascinating finding originated with the dataset from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. The researchers found that the relative physical attractiveness of generous people actually improved as they aged. Those people who were significantly more generous in their late 50s were rated as better looking by the time they reached their early 70s. Keep in mind, the rating of their relative attractiveness was done by a study group who did not know anything about how generous – or cheap – they had been in their lifetime. Hence, the reverse halo effect played no factor in how the study group perceived physical appearance.
The researchers concluded, “Overall, financial giving in older adulthood was associated with more attractiveness several years later.” Of course, the causal relationship remains an open question. People who are generous tend to experience a sense of joy and well-being from their actions. Perhaps that contentment helps ease the aging process. Giving people also tend to have broader social networks and we know there is a direct link between stronger interpersonal relationships and happiness. Maybe sustaining greater levels of happiness over time can be seen in a person’s appearance.
“While we cannot fully explain why the link between giving behaviors and attractiveness exists, we find remarkably consistent overall effects across the three studies, despite being conducted at different times, using different participants, and using different methods and measures.”
One can only hope that the researcher’s final summation proves to be true. “Our results suggest that beauty products and procedures may not be the only way to enhance an individual’s attractiveness; perhaps being generous could be the next beauty trend.”
This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on January 1, 2021.