Research from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, that was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences looked at how people perceive strangers when they have just a photo to judge and whether that alters when some traits, either negative or positive, are attached to the photo. They showed that one's perception of an individual indeed changes how attractive one judges that individual to be.
First, the researchers presented 60 Chinese men and 60 Chinese women with 60 different photos of women they didn't know, all taken from Google and all with neutral facial expressions.
The study participants had been randomly assigned to one of three groups, but for the first part of the study they all did the same thing, rating each photo on how attractive they found the woman to be.
Two weeks later, they were presented with the same photographs.
The photos given to the first group of participants included some positive personality traits of the photographed individuals, while the second group was provided with information on negative traits.
The third group again rated the photos without any descriptive information, just the physical appearance they could see in the photo. The results documented what the researchers called a "halo" effect.
While there was no group difference in the first rating round, the group that got the photos associated with positive traits like kindness rated them as significantly more attractive, while the effect was just the opposite with the group provided negative traits. They earned the lowest ratings for attractiveness.
"Positive personality can increase perceptions of facial attractiveness," the researchers wrote.
Commenting on the study for Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman wrote that "one of the most robust findings in social psychology is the beauty-is-good stereotype: Physically attractive people are perceived and treated more positively than physically unattractive people. But here's the thing: I have definitely met attractive people who went from hot-to-not the second they opened their mouths! Vice versa, some people are so kind and awesome that you can't help but be attracted to them, regardless of their score on hornotnot.com."
Kaufman traced a series of studies that showed how one's perception of an individual's positive personality traits, like kindness or hard work, improved views of their physical attractiveness, while traits like laziness did the opposite. In one study, published in Evolution and Human Behavior, high school students rated the attractiveness of peers using their yearbook photos.
Those who were well-liked got higher ratings than the less popular kids. When strangers rated them on attractiveness, the results were different.
Another study Kaufman cited had athletes rate team members' attractiveness. Those who were liked and worked hard were viewed as more attractive physically, while one deemed a "slacker" got the lowest rating.
Researchers have long looked at the question of physical attractiveness and what leads to the perception. In 2002, for instance, Charles Feng of Stanford University wrote in the Journal of Young Investigators that "symmetry has been scientifically proven to be inherently attractive to the human eye. It has been defined not with proportions, but rather with similarity between the left and right sides of the face."
He noted Plato's theory on golden proportions, "in which, amongst other things, the width of an ideal face would be two-thirds its length, while a nose would be no longer than the distance between the eyes." That theory has fallen out of favor.
But Feng concludes that "for better or worse, the bottom line is that research shows beauty matters; it pervades society and affects how we choose loved ones. Thus, striving to appear attractive may not be such a vain endeavor after all. This isn't to say plastic surgery is necessarily the answer. Instead, lead a healthy lifestyle that will in turn make you a happier person."