SCIENCE
10/29/2014 05:26 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2014

Kindness Really Does Make You More Attractive

If teen movies have anything to say about it, the hottest people are usually also the meanest, while the nice guys are the ones who can't get a date. But according to some rather encouraging new research, an attractive personality may be one of the most important factors in perceived beauty. In other words, being a good person could actually make people perceive you as more attractive.

A recent study, led by Yan Zhang of Huazhong University in China and published in the November 2014 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, found positive personality traits to increase perceptions of facial attractiveness.

The researchers tested 120 male and female adult Chinese participants, randomly divided into three groups, and asked each participant to rate 60 photos of unfamiliar Chinese women making neutral facial expressions. Two weeks later, participants rated the same pictures again. But this time, one group was given positive personality descriptions, like kindness and honesty, alongside the same photos. The second group looked at the same photos, but read accompanying negative personality descriptors (such as meanness or dishonesty). The control group was shown the same photos without any personality descriptors.

All three groups had similar attractiveness ratings in the first round of photo rankings. But in the second round when the descriptions were added, the group shown the same photos with positive personality descriptors assigned the highest attractiveness ratings to the photos, while the group with negative personality descriptors ranked the photos less attractive than the positive group and the control group.

"We find that 'what is good is beautiful,' with personality reflecting desired traits as facial attractiveness," the researchers wrote. "This phenomenon can also be called the 'halo effect.' We can thus presume that personality traits may contribute to judging facial attractiveness and that the personality traits desired in a person are reflected in facial preference."

Zhang's research is part of a growing inquiry into the link between personality and physical attractiveness. A 2010 study found that kindness could influence the body type a person found attractive. A group of 2,000 male study participants reviewed photos of a diverse group of women, agreeing on a very narrow definition of body "attractiveness." But in a second experiment, when given positive personality information about the women in the photographs, a far greater variety of body types were deemed attractive by the group.

"From an evolutionary point of view, there are many ways to display one’s fitness and mate value, which certainly extend to the mental and behavioral domains," Scott Barry Kaufman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved with the study, said in an email to The Huffington Post. "Being able to accurately assess the content of someone’s character can be even more important for survival and reproduction than assessing someone’s physical makeup. After all, a physically attractive psychopath is more likely to hinder the propagation of healthy genes than a person who is physically attractive based more on their hot personality."

Of course, the new research does have some limitations, and shouldn't yet be taken as conclusive evidence of our psychological tendency to equate goodness and beauty. The study looked only at a small group within a narrow demographic of Chinese women between 20 and 30 years of age, Kaufman, who reviewed the study for HuffPost, explained. And the study didn't address the mechanism through which people associate attractiveness with personality traits.

"Nevertheless, I hope to see more research along these lines on the cognitive and personality factors affecting perceptions of attractiveness," Kaufman concluded.

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