07/29/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

How Your Appearance Is Affecting Your Behavior

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We care a lot about our physical appearance. In 2008, Americans spent over 200 billion dollars on their physical appearance even though they were going through one of the worst recessions in the history of the United States. And, today, records indicate that people spend more money on grooming than on reading material.

Researchers have previously suggested that people care about their appearance because of the lipstick effect: During times of economic recession, women are more likely to purchase products that boost their attractiveness, with the hope that the use of such products would attract potential partners with economic resources.

But caring about how one looks doesn't only apply to women; men care about their physical appearance as well. In our research, we investigated another reason: People care about their physical appearance because it is tied to their perceptions of their social status. Specifically, we predicted that when people think that they are more physically attractive, they believe that they belong to a higher social class, independent of their actual level of physical attractiveness and objective social status. And the reverse is also true: When people think that they are less physically attractive, they believe they belong to a lower social class.

Past research suggests that individuals assess their subjective social class by evaluating how much wealth and education they have relative to others. In our research, we found that people also infer their social class based on subtle social cues, such as their beliefs about their physical appearance. For example, when we asked participants to write about instances in which they thought they were attractive, they reported that they belonged to a relatively higher social class. By contrast, when we asked participants to write about instances in which they thought they were less attractive, they subsequently reported belonging to a relatively lower social class. Importantly, these effects emerged specifically for physical attractiveness; they did not emerge when we asked people to recall instances in which they demonstrated more or less empathy or integrity.

Why does this happen? A lot of this has to do with the fact that physical attractiveness is tied to the concept of privilege and favored social treatment. In society, physical attractiveness confers numerous social advantages. For example, attractive individuals earn substantially more, and are more likely to get hired and promoted in organizations. By contrast, people are generally prejudiced against those who are physically unattractive -- they think, for example, that unattractive individuals are less competent and less warm than physically attractive individuals. Moreover, people have a general tendency to think that if someone is physically attractive, then he or she must be part of the elite in society. In our research, we showed that people apply the same inference to themselves. Just as they judge attractive others as relatively higher social class, they judged their own social class as higher to the extent they felt they were physically attractive.

These findings suggest that our perceptions of our physical appearance matter so much to us because we believe that physical attractiveness is one dimension in which society is fundamentally organized. Our cultural preoccupation with physical appearance isn't simply a narcissistic tendency, but may, in part, reflect our striving for social standing in society.

But the research doesn't stop there. In our studies, we also found that people's beliefs about their physical appearance influenced not only their perceptions of their social class but also their subsequent attitudes toward equality. When people thought they were more attractive, they also became more supportive of inequality. For example, they were more supportive using others to get ahead, and were less likely to donate money to the Occupy movement. By contrast, when people thought they were less attractive, they became less supportive of inequality. For example, they were more likely to endorse equality as the ideology for which society should strive. These findings suggest that our beliefs about our physical attractiveness can do more than make us more confident -- it can also shape our views about what constitutes a model society.

Margaret Neale is the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management, and Peter Belmi is a doctoral student in organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Neale and Belmi are co-authors of "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? Thinking that one is attractive increases the tendency to support inequality." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 124 (2), 133-149.