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Blinded by beauty

Friday 19 February 2016

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A new study from the University of St Andrews has found that it could be possible to predict academic performance from faces – if we weren’t so blinded by beauty.

The new research, published in the journal PLoS One, highlights that our bias towards attractive people can limit our ability to accurately assess academic performance.

Researchers behind the study say the ‘attractiveness halo effect’ has worrying implications, as perceptions of how well someone might do academically can have a real impact on a student’s future performance.

The study was carried out by psychologist Sean Talamas for his PhD. Sean, now post-doc researcher in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews, said: “Previous studies have suggested there are valid facial cues that assist us in assessing someone’s health or intelligence, but such cues are overshadowed by an ‘attractiveness halo’ whereby desirable attributions are preferentially ascribed to attractive people.”

Sean collected neutrally posed facial photographs and academic performance records from 100 students before having them rated online for perceived attractiveness, academic performance, conscientiousness and intelligence. It was found that academic performance was best predicted from evaluations of how conscientious students looked, but accuracy in estimating grades was significantly higher when statistically observing attractiveness.

Sean explained: “The utility of perceived conscientiousness in predicting how well students do aligns with other research showing that it is how hard students work, rather than their IQ , that is the best predictor of academic grades, but the bigger story is that there is no accuracy at all unless you control for attractiveness bias.

“It is important to note that this research is not aimed at attempting to improve an individual’s ability to accurately assess academic performance from face alone, but rather emphasise how prevalent and limiting the attractiveness bias is.”

Professor David Perrett, Head of the Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews, added: “Prior work in our lab has shown that several aspects of personality can be detected from facial appearance. Cues to expression can leak into even neutral passport photographs, giving away a person’s sociability etc. However accuracy in judging character from appearance is quite limited, hence people should be judged by their actions not their looks.”


Notes to editors

PhD candidate Sean Talamas recently gave a TEDx talk, which discusses his findings further.

Issued by Victoria Herd, University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 467230 or email proffice@st-andrews.ac.uk.