Saturday, July 28, 2012

Too hot to hire?

....or why psych undergrads would make lousy hiring managers.

I saw this study pop up on Instapundit, and while the number of "that happens to me all the time" jokes are infinite, I'm pretty sad this study got mentioned at all.  Here's the Router's recap:
Attractive women faced discrimination when they applied for jobs where appearance was not seen as important. These positions included job titles like manager of research and development, director of finance, mechanical engineer and construction supervisor.
Oh the sad sad existence of beautiful women.  To work so hard on your career and then get denied a job because you're too attractive.  Now, out of curiosity, exactly how many women got rejected from these jobs for this study?


This study didn't study women or men actually applying for jobs.  They studied what happens when you give a bunch of psych undergrads a huge stack of pictures, a list of job titles and say "sort these pictures in to groups of who you think would be most qualified for a job based solely on the pictures".  Seriously, that's what they did.  Read the full study here.

It turns out that when you ask 65 undergrads (mostly women) to rank a whole bunch (204) of photos of people using no criteria other than what they look like, people might judge other people based on what they look like.  There was some lovely statistical analysis in here, but at no point did they attempt to prove that asking a 20 year old (who presumably had no first hand knowledge about any of the fields other than psych) to sort a picture reflected at all what goes on in hiring offices.

In fact, this is what the "practical implications" section of the paper said:
Although the findings reported here demonstrate the “what is beautiful is good” and “beauty is beastly” effects, it is important to address the likelihood of such stereotypes influencing actual employment decisions. For example, in situations where there is a high cost of making a mistake, as would be the case for a hiring decision, one would expect the decision maker to rely more on individuating information, rather than on stereotypes about physical appearance. However, it is important to note that the bias for the physically attractive, unlike other stereotypes, seems to impact impression formation in a broader range of circumstances. Recent meta-analyses suggest that the what is beautiful is good effect is pervasive, even when the perceiver has additional information about the target   (Hosoda et al., 2003; Langlois et al., 2000). Attractiveness may influence decision  making at a subconscious level, where exposure to an attractive individual elicits positive feelings in the decision maker, causing him or her to judge the target more favorably (Eagly et al., 1991). Moreover, in situations where a decision maker is under a high cognitive load or under time pressure, he or she may be more likely to rely on stereotypes (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Pendry & Macrae, 1994).
So there is some proof that people favor attractive people no matter what, but no similar proof that they might discriminate against an attractive person if they had real world information.  Which leads me to get a little weirded out by quotes like this from the researcher (in interviews, not the article):
"In every other kind of job, attractive women were preferred," said Johnson, who chided those who let stereotypes affect hiring decisions. 
Putting aside the fact that equality in this case appears to mean that everyone should prefer attractive people....what hiring managers was she chiding?  The ones she never studied?  Since the largest bias against attractive women was found when the mostly female undergrads were asked about who was qualified for male dominated fields....does that say more about what men think about women in non traditional fields, or what women think about women in non traditional fields?

While I'm sure that physical appearance does make a difference in hiring practices, I would have loved to see a little more time dedicated mimicking the real world before announcing that women were facing discrimination in certain professions.  To allow these results to be propagated as proof of what goes on at legitimate companies is a bit of a stretch, and points the finger at people who never even got asked what they would do.  


  1. Lots of academic psychology is just an excuse to talk about sex and beautiful women with undergraduates, while still looking sophisticated.

    1. I knew I was missing something. Stupid engineering degree.

  2. If it was smart females doing the choosing, there might have been just the SLIGHTEST chance that they would have discriminated against the attractive ones. Working late Friday night at the lab while a bunch of bimbo cheerleaders were having fun with the hottest guys on campus might make one or two studious women a tad jealous and lead them to decide that the pretty applicants were bimbos. Seriously, sometimes you just have to look at who is in the studies and factor out any bias on their part. Plenty of gorgeous women are highly competent (look at that Google transplant at Yahoo).