Beauty Bias

In a TV game show, pretty contestants were not better or more cooperative players, but other contestants seemed to act as if they were:

It’s an uncomfortable truth that beautiful people make more money. … Now a study of a TV game show supports the prejudice hypothesis. … V. Bhaskar … analysed 69 episodes of Shafted … At the end of a round, the highest-scoring player picks a contestant to eliminate. Although the least attractive players scored no worse in the show than others, they were twice as likely to be eliminated in the first round. The contestants did not seem to base their decision on other factors such as age or sex. …

Contestants also confused attractiveness with cooperativeness. In the final round of Shafted, the last two players vie for an accumulated pot of money. Each player must opt to share the prize or attempt to grab it all for themselves. If one player opts to grab while one opts to share, the grabber takes the lot. If both try to grab, they both leave empty-handed, so game theory dictates that the leading contestant should pick a fellow finalist who is likely to cooperate. 

Even though attractiveness was found to have no bearing on cooperativeness, the leader often elected to play the final round with the most attractive of their remaining rivals. In 13 shows, these looks-based decisions even overrode a simple imperative to choose their highest-scoring rival, which would have led to an increases in the ultimate prize fund. In these cases, the prize was E350 lower than it could have been, on average.

It also seems we think everyone is prettier when we are tipsy:

Researchers … randomly assigned 84 heterosexal students to consume either a non-alcoholic lime-flavoured drink or an alcoholic beverage with a similar flavour. … After 15 minutes, the students were shown pictures of people their own age, from both sexes.  Both men and women who had consumed alcohol rated the faces as being more attractive than did the controls … The effect was not limited to the opposite sex – volunteers who had drunk alcohol also rated people from their own sex as more attractive.

So, do we think everyone is better and more cooperative when we are tipsy?

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  • Ben Jones
  • wtf

    Robin, I would look at the end of the show and see if the producers have any say in who is eliminated. If they do, you have fallen victim to a larger bias than a bias toward attractiveness. You have eaten what was given to you without questioning it. Don’t trust the television. It has turned into a propaganda machine.

    If the producers are not involved, then the people choosing attractiveness over skill are not strategic in the least bit and do not frighten me as a competitor. Not only am I smart, but I am hot too, so I have nothing to worry about anyway. (Does that sound too much like EY?)

  • Tom

    >So, do we think everyone is better and more cooperative when we are tipsy?

    Participants in the tipsy group may have rated the faces as being more attractive relative to themselves, rather than more attractive in an absolute sense. So they might rate others as better and more cooperative, but rate themselves as being less so. Or perhaps being tipsy simply makes people kinder and more willing to say that others are attractive without actually believing it.

    I suggest filming a series of Shafted in which all of the contestants are tipsy, and predict a weakening of the actual attractiveness/percieved cooperativeness link, as contestants would view almost all other players as attractive and therefore cooperative. If I am correct, drinking alcohol may be a powerful method of overcoming inter-personal bias.

  • Grant

    Finally, a bias with an obvious solution! All we need to do is drink more, and the ugly folks out there won’t look so bad…

  • wtf is probably correct.

    Most reality television shows end with a legal disclaimer, informing viewers that contestant decisions were made in consultation with the show’s producers. In which case the decisions being made are probably not actually biased: viewers clearly have a preference for attractiveness in contestants, particularly if we normalize for the other traits which are associated with popular reality show contestants (consider contestants such as Ruben Studdard or Richard Hatch, who are not particularly attractive but are interesting to watch for other reasons).

    As a sort of control, we ought to measure this effect in game situations where the contest is not televised.

  • Isn’t this related to the Halo Effect?

  • The hypothesis that the producers influenced selection does seem worth looking into.

  • H. L. Mencken:

    A man who has taken aboard two or three cocktails is less competent than he was before to steer a battleship down the Ambrose Channel, or to cut off a leg, or to draw up a deed of trust, or to conduct Bach’s B minor mass, but he is immensely more competent to entertain a dinner party, to admire a pretty girl, or to hear Bach’s B minor mass…

    All this is so obvious that I marvel that no utopian has ever proposed to abolish all the sorrows of the world by the simple device of getting and keeping the whole human race gently stewed.

    (‘Portrait of an Ideal World’, The American Mercury, 1924, p. 101)