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Just because you’re pretty or handsome—don’t count on my vote!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Here’s some research that flies in the face of the common wisdom “what is pretty is good”. Most of us have seen (or heard about) the research that says physically attractive people  tend to make better initial impressions on others. It seems that there is some fine print that goes with that adage, and you may have heard the saying “pretty is as pretty does”.  It’s an old-fashioned phrase that means “don’t judge a book by its cover”.  And the message of this new research is similar—don’t expect to skate by on your looks with same sex jurors (unless they have high self-esteem). While the researchers say this effect is documented well in the ‘close relationships’ research literature, they wanted to see if it would hold true in organizational environments when used to determine hire-ability.

In the current research, German researchers attached carefully selected photos to mock resumes. They chose the photos from college yearbooks and the internet, based on the following variables: facial photo, in their 20s, all white, no eyeglasses, and no obesity. (The researchers state they chose all white targets since race can influence impressions of attractiveness.) The photos also did not depict the targets as either sexy or cute—they were simple face shots. Then the photos were rated using an attractiveness scale (although not the ‘hot or not’ scale). Four photos were ultimately selected: one attractive male and female and one less attractive male and female.

The attached resume was identical for all practical purposes and demonstrated the candidate was reasonably well qualified for the job. Only gender and assessed attractiveness varied. Research participants were asked to rate how likely they were to recommend hiring the applicant and then how much they would like to either work with the applicant or become friends with the applicant.

The researchers did a second study using professional actors on videotape with rating checks made to ensure attractive versus unattractive actors. (And no, the actors did not know the purpose of the videotapes so they were not shamed or aggrandized.  Although, it might have become uncomfortable at school reunions…) And finally, they did a third study with photographs again where the real purpose of the study was to look at research participant’s own self-esteem.

And here is what they found.

Attractive applicants were rated more highly by the opposite gender. The same was not true for same-sex attractive applicants. These patterns held true for both male and female research participants.

And, while attractiveness made a difference for those research participants with low and moderate self-esteem, it did not for high self-esteem participants.

In other words, if you have low or moderate self-esteem, you are more threatened by others and more likely to underrate attractive same-sex targets.

If you have high self-esteem you are less threatened and don’t underrate attractive same-sex targets.

We would note the heterosexual bias of this study but want to focus on implications for litigation advocacy. And it’s a tricky one.

First, if you are an attractive female litigator, you might want to play it down a bit in court. Professional attire, competence and a matter-of-fact style can go a long ways with the jury.

There are multiple studies about how female attorneys are perceived and we don’t mean to say it’s fair, we only mean to say, be aware and be strategic.  In fact—we know it isn’t fair, and it shouldn’t be an issue at trial, but we feel obliged at times like this to acknowledge the world as it is.

Second, for women litigators, pay attention to what you can know about the self-esteem levels of potential jurors. Remember that accomplishment in life does not necessarily mean high self-esteem. Look for those who make good eye contact and seem relaxed and open to court proceedings. If you have a negative sense of a female (or male) juror’s reaction to you—trust it.  As I have had to say bluntly to attorneys during jury selection, “It isn’t just discomfort you’re feeling from that juror—they actually don’t like you.”

If you are an attractive male litigator, you also might want to play it down a bit in court. Don’t wear that blue shirt that brings out the color of your eyes. Go more traditional in attire.  Jurors resent feeling manipulated, and you don’t want them feeling competitive with you.

For both male and female litigators, attractive or not so much, focus on being both competent and likeable. Use persuasive strategies to good effect. And appeal to jurors’ best selves.

There are other interesting ideas to be drawn from this research but what is perhaps most important is the role of juror self-esteem in choosing to either elevate or demean people you see, just based on appearance.  And that isn’t pretty.


Agthe M, Spörrle M, & Maner JK (2011). Does being attractive always help? Positive and negative effects of attractiveness on social decision making. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (8), 1042-54 PMID: 21636731


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