A Psychologist Explains Why Life is Easier For Attractive People

It’s time to face the science of pretty privilege.
psychology attractive people pretty privilege beautiful halo effect talent success moral goodness intelligence
Beauty is good… isn’t it? Photo: Klaus Vedfelt, Getty

In the 2010 pop anthem “Pretty Girl Rock,”  Keri Hilson sings: “All eyes on me when I walk in / No question that this girl’s a ten / Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful / Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful / My walk, my talk, the way I dress / It’s not my fault so please don’t trip.”

Today, people might say that Hilson was singing about “pretty privilege,” or the idea that people who are conventionally attractive based on current social beauty standards have more advantages and opportunities compared to those deemed less attractive. It is also when people associate beauty with talent, intelligence, social success, health, and basically all other good things anybody could ever want. 


Many studies have sought to understand the connection between aesthetic beauty and moral judgments (sometimes referred to as the “beauty is good” stereotype), with some pointing to how similar areas of the brain are involved in recognizing good looks and good will

“Throughout the world, attractive people show greater acquisition of resources and greater reproductive success than others,” says one study. In another study, from 2009, 284 subjects rated photographs of people according to how likable, attractive, and trustworthy they perceived the people in the photographs to be. Results showed that attractive individuals were deemed more trustworthy than unattractive individuals. 

But, like Hilson said, pretty people aren’t to blame—biology and psychology are.

According to California-based clinical and forensic neuropsychologist Judy Ho, pretty privilege may serve some evolutionary purposes. “The more symmetric the faces, the more attractive, conventionally, the person is going to be, and symmetry generally has a correlation to biological strength,” Ho told VICE.


In other words, something about a symmetrical face, which happens to fit into what society thinks is a good-looking face, may indicate strong and healthy genes. So it makes sense for evolution to push people to want more of these genes, if only for the survival of the species. 

Another piece of the puzzle of pretty privilege is what psychologists call the “Halo Effect.” 

“The Halo Effect means that if there’s one good trait in a person, you then associate a bunch of other good traits with that first good trait,” said Ho. “And usually the first good trait we’re talking about is physical beauty.” This explains why people tend to assume that conventionally beautiful people are also smart, funny, or talented. 

But Ho also pointed to how looking good sometimes has the opposite effect, especially for women. People might say, for example, that because a woman is so pretty, she must be shallow or not so smart.

Grouping positive traits together—assuming pretty people are also good people—is just another way the human mind tries to make sense of the world. People make these assumptions, Ho said, because their brains are constantly looking for shortcuts to understand its surroundings. “When they see an attractive person, they're going to say: OK, that attractive person is also probably nice and smart and has a lot of friends and is popular.” 


The same can be said about wealth.

“As a rich person who is very weird, you are called ‘eccentric.’ As a poor person who is really weird. you’re just called a crazy person,” said entrepreneur Frank Niu in a TikTok video. 

Pretty people aren’t necessarily nicer, healthier, funnier, and smarter, but it turns out that many may end up trying to live up to people’s expectations. 

“In some ways, what we find is when people are treated a certain way, then they develop those types of skill sets further,” Ho said.

Think of someone, anyone, who’s been “pretty” since they were a child. For one reason or another, that person’s family, friends, and teachers will likely give that child more positive attention. As a result of that positive attention, that child might grow up to be more socially adept, outgoing, or confident. 

“It reinforces a positive view of themselves and because of that positive view and the development of better self-confidence, sometimes they then develop other skill sets that help them to garner that positive reinforcement even more,” said Ho.

People who weren’t always pretty and eventually “glow up” might be able to draw a line between how they were treated by others the years before they had pretty privilege, and the years they started having it. Coming-of-age movies use this narrative all the time. Cue the makeover montage from The Princess Diaries, a turning point for Genovia’s Mia Thermopolis.


“When you weren’t attractive, it was like everything you did was annoying. Your presence just pissed people off,” said one TikTok user. “But when you’re stereotypically attractive, you get away with so much more.”

Men experience pretty privilege, too. One TikTok user recalled how women started giving him their number without him asking after he lost weight and started looking conventionally “fit.” Arguably, pretty privilege may also play a role in society’s willingness to understand people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer instead of just writing them off as bad people.

Like other privileges, in the right hands, pretty privilege can be used for good. 

“People who have pretty privilege, if they choose to be pro-social with that positive attention, it can actually help them to achieve goals that help other people. It can help them to have more empathy with others and because of their social networks and social circles. They may be able to positively influence somebody else's life as a result of that,” Ho said. This is at least both the premise and promise of beauty pageants. 

If people are afforded opportunities by way of pretty privilege, and use those opportunities to create opportunities for other people, then they’ve put their good looks to good use. But that’s possible only when they recognize, understand, and are grateful for the privilege that their looks have given them.


But pretty privilege can also be, well, not so pretty. Ho said that people can feel entitled to their privilege. That means they think they deserve all the positive attention, and use it exclusively to serve themselves in exchange for nothing else but sitting pretty.  

“These individuals, obviously, could cause a lot of difficulties in the relationships that they have,” said Ho. “They may have difficulty holding jobs where perhaps they have to work in a team or maybe listen to somebody else as a supervisor and somebody to guide their work.”

People who think they have pretty privilege shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Instead, Ho said they should be grateful and put it to good use. It was, after all, simply handed to them by human psychology and evolutionary biology. 

“Think about how you can utilize that to improve somebody else's life, somebody who, for example, does not have free privilege and may not have been afforded the opportunities that you have been afforded,” said Ho. “If there's a way that you can help them, provide them encouragement and confidence in a different way, that's one way of paying it forward.”

All is not lost for people who aren’t afforded privilege because of their looks.

Ho explained that while the Halo Effect is arguably most prominent for pretty people, it applies to all positive traits—intelligence, kindness, generosity—many of which we all have or can develop. 

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