Maxims & Myths of Facial Beauty

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” “Never judge a book by its cover,” and “Beauty is only skin deep” are but three examples of widely held beliefs and teachings about the role of facial attractiveness in our culture. Are these aphorisms true or false?

META-ANALYSIS is a statistical technique that quantitatively evaluates the conclusions of published and unpublished research. In our case, we reviewed the literature on the effects of facial attractiveness from 1932 to June, 1999.

Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M., & Smoot, M. (2000). Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 390-423. PDF Version (2.2 MB) © American Psychological Association.

1) Is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder? NO

  • Contrary to common assumption, adults and children agree about who is and is not attractive, both within and across ethnicity and cultures. Instead,
  • There seem to be universal standards by which facial attractiveness is judged.

2) Do we judge books by their covers?   YES

  • Adults and children judge other adults and children more favorably than unattractive adults and children, even by those who know them. Furthermore,
  • Adults and children treat other adults and children more positively than unattractive adults and children, even by those who know them.

3) Is beauty only skin deep? NO

  • Beauty is more than skin-deep: Although both attractive and unattractive people exhibit positive behaviors and traits, attractive people exhibit more positive behaviors and traits than unattractive individuals. However,
  • We do not yet know why. Perhaps because attractive and unattractive people are treated differently, they learn to behave differently.

4) Other interesting results of the meta-analysis:

  • Attractiveness is as important for males as for females in judging people we know.
  • Attractiveness is as important, if not more so, for children than for adults.

Though the above statements are empirically true, their inclusion is not meant as an endorsement by the Langlois Lab. Most of us are unaware that we hold these biases about attractive and/or unattractive people, yet they continue to affect people’s daily lives. Much additional research is needed before we can discover WHY and HOW facial attractiveness influences social behavior and social development.