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Prosocial Behaviour Enhances Perceived Attractiveness

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A recent study conducted by an international team of researchers from WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, Lund University, and Fresenius University of Applied Sciences, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, has shed light on the intricate relationship between physical attractiveness and prosocial behaviour. The study reveals that not only do people expect attractive individuals to behave more generously, but prosocial actions also make individuals appear more attractive.

This study explores how physical attractiveness and prosocial behaviour influence each other. The researchers employed a pre-registered, incentivised behavioural experiment with 250 participants to investigate this relationship.

Participants were shown avatar pictures representing previous players in a dictator game and were asked to judge their attractiveness and prosocial behaviour based on the avatars’ actions. The study’s findings confirmed the hypothesis that attractive individuals are expected to be more prosocial. More importantly, the research identified a significant causal effect of prosocial behaviour on perceived attractiveness.

The “beauty-is-good” stereotype suggests that attractive people are perceived as having better personality traits and skills. This stereotype often leads to the preferential treatment of attractive individuals. Previous research has shown that attractive people are seen as more trustworthy, cooperative, and socially skilled.

The current study builds on this premise by demonstrating that attractiveness can lead to expectations of prosocial behaviour. Participants in the experiment were more likely to expect generous behaviour from avatars they found attractive. This expectation was consistent across different demographics, although it was stronger among female participants.

The study’s most novel contribution is its demonstration of the “good-is-beautiful” bias. Prosocial actions, such as generosity in the dictator game, led to higher attractiveness ratings for the avatars. Participants rated avatars associated with prosocial behaviour significantly higher on the attractiveness scale compared to those linked to selfish actions.

This effect was consistent even when participants were incentivised to match their attractiveness ratings with the majority opinion from the pre-study. The results suggest that prosocial behaviour not only enhances perceived attractiveness in the short term but may also have lasting effects on how individuals are viewed.

The findings of this study have broad implications for our understanding of social interactions and the formation of social perceptions. They contend that attractiveness is a trait that can change depending on one’s actions. Prosocial behaviour, in particular, has the potential to enhance how attractive an individual is perceived to be.

This bi-directional relationship between attractiveness and prosocial behaviour indicates that our social perceptions are more dynamic than previously thought. The study’s authors propose that these findings can help explain why attractive individuals often receive better treatment and more opportunities. It also highlights the potential for prosocial behaviour to positively impact one’s social standing and attractiveness.

The researchers approached their study from the perspective of ecological rationality, which posits that decision-making processes are adapted to environmental contexts. In social interactions, where information about others may be limited, physical attractiveness can serve as a readily accessible cue for assessing someone’s prosocial inclinations.

This approach helps explain why the beauty-is-good bias persists even when there is no inherent link between attractiveness and prosocial behaviour. In environments where face-to-face interactions are common, relying on attractiveness as a cue can be seen as a rational strategy for predicting prosocial behaviour.

While this study provides robust evidence for the bi-directional relationship between attractiveness and prosocial behaviour, it also opens up several avenues for future research. One area of interest is exploring how different types of prosocial actions, such as volunteering or charitable donations, affect perceived attractiveness. Additionally, the researchers suggest investigating how these biases operate in different cultural contexts and social settings.

Another potential research direction is identifying individuals who are most susceptible to these biases and the contextual factors that influence their susceptibility. Understanding these dynamics can help develop targeted interventions to mitigate the negative impacts of these biases, such as discrimination based on appearance.

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