It is a well-documented fact that a person’s physical attractiveness can influence our attitude toward them as a source of information. This has shown to be particularly robust, of course, when physical attractiveness is related to the information itself—which is why commercials for skincare products and gym memberships usually feature physically attractive models.
However, there are many dimensions to the attitudes we hold, including our level of confidence in them. Thus, while physical attractiveness tends to positively skew attitudes regarding a message (making us more likely to trust it), it’s not known whether those attitudes are more or less robust. That is, exactly how sure we are about our conclusion.
This was the goal of researchers whose recent publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology measured the effects of a source’s physical attractiveness on attitude confidence.
The results are somewhat counterintuitive—and all the more interesting as a result. A first study of 90 participants revealed that physical attractiveness actually reduces attitude confidence. That is, when humans recognize a source as being more attractive, it seems they automatically correct for it and are thus more likely to question their own judgement.
To further investigate this phenomenon, a second study with 126 participants was performed in which the content of the message was either related (skincare) or unrelated (dish detergent) to physical attractiveness. Here, results showed that attractive-related (as opposed to unrelated) messages relayed by attractive individuals, inversely, led to greater attitude confidence.
“When participants were exposed to a message presented by a source whose attractiveness was irrelevant to the nature of the message, they reported less attitude confidence than when exposed to the identical messaged presented by an unattractive source,” the researchers explained.
These studies prompted the authors to question why physical attractiveness had an effect on attitude confidence, but not attitudes. They hypothesize that, while attitudes are generated spontaneously, evaluations of those attitudes (an example of meta-cognition) are generated explicitly and following reasoned self-evaluation.
Finally, a third (N = 124) and fourth (N = 122) study enabled researchers to further hone their observations. They found that participants who were instructed to correct for attractiveness (“Try not to let the author’s attractiveness factor into your evaluation.”) ended up forming less favorable attitudes in general, while attitude confidence was still negatively correlated with physical attractiveness. Finally, reduced attitude confidence made it easier for attitudes to then be modified via persuasion at a later time.
Together, these studies demonstrate the complex ways that physical attractiveness can cause us to mediate our own reactions, as we adjust our internal, often subconscious evaluations because we suspect they may have been influenced. Thus, a physically attractive source can induce more positive attitudes and at the same time erode one’s confidence in them and make it easier to be persuaded otherwise.
Understanding the biases and heuristics that drive our fundamental decision-making is one of the great goals of psychology. Studies like this enable us to better understand how the physical world impacts our attitudes and how strongly we feel about them.
The study, “The influence of physical attractiveness on attitude confidence and resistance to change”, was authored by Joana Mello, Teresa Garcia-Marques, Pablo Briñol, Ana Cancela, and Richard E.Petty.