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A trusting gent. After years of being fawned over, beautiful people seem to trust others more when they meet face to face.

Rachel Sklar

Trust Is Only Skin Deep

Good looks can take you far. Strangers rate attractive people as more trustworthy and honest, and lookers earn more money, too. Now, scientists report that this deferential treatment may lead the beautiful to be more trusting when they know others can see them.

Psychologists and economists have long known that people act differently when watched. In economic games that ask people to divvy up piles of cash, subjects tend to be more generous when experimenters merely display pictures of eyes. Even drawing eyes on the office coffee fund jar makes people more willing to contribute.

Because society treats attractive people differently, experimental psychologist Lisa DeBruine of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom and colleagues wondered if the effect of being watched depended on a person's looks. To find out, the researchers recruited 78 psychology students from their university to play a game. The students were given a choice: split a sum of money in half or trust an opponent to divide a larger sum. A player could earn more money by trusting the opponent to make the decision.

To determine the effect of being under observation, the researchers took the students' pictures and told them that in some rounds the opponents would see their picture and in others they wouldn't. But the researchers were deceiving the students: The opponents didn't actually exist. DeBruine and colleagues cared only about the student's decision about when to trust.

The scientists judged attractiveness by asking the students to rate their own beauty on a scale of 1 (homely) to 7 (gorgeous). A panel of 10 unrelated people did the same. Students rated to be more attractive by the panel trusted more often when the opponents could see their face than when they couldn't, the researchers report in the November issue of Evolution and Human Behavior. Compared with the anonymous rounds, when they could be seen, the prettiest top third trusted 69% more often, whereas the bottom third trusted 31% less often.

This result held only for the panel ratings, not the self-ratings, even though the two ratings were correlated. To DeBruine, the disconnect suggests that people aren't explicitly thinking about their own attractiveness when they act. "It may be more of a learning effect," she says. "[Attractive] people learn that face-to-face interactions may go better than, say, when they interact over the phone."

Ragan Petrie, an experimental economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, agrees. She's also not surprised that the self-report ratings weren't connected to trusting: "It's not how I think about myself, it's more about how I imagine others think about me," Petrie says.