The Ugly Truth About Beauty

We like to think of America as a meritocracy. A lot of us think we value people because of what they accomplish, or their character, or generosity, or intelligence — that's what we thought mattered, but are we just putting blinders on?

More often than not it seems qualities other than skill, intelligence or character pay off. Here's an example. Anna Kournikova is ranked 37th in women's tennis, and has never won a major singles championship. So, why is it that Kournikova makes millions more dollars from endorsements than players ranked higher?

Looks don't only make a difference for women. Does New York Giants' cornerback Jason Sehorn get so much attention just because he's a top athlete? Is that why he was featured in Sports Illustrated for Women?

You probably know about the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates — people listening on the radio thought Richard Nixon had won. Those watching TV thought the handsome John F. Kennedy won.

When Texas Sen. Phil Gramm sought the Republican nomination for president in 1996, he said: "The real question is whether someone as ugly as I am can be elected." Within months, Gramm dropped out of the race.

Did the press cover JFK Jr. so relentlessly solely because he was the son of a president? Would we have cared so much about Princess Di if she had looked like, say, Princess Margaret?

Beauty and the Brain

It may seem obvious to most of us that people would prefer to look at beautiful faces. While beauty itself may be only skin deep, studies show our perception of beauty may be hard-wired in our brains.

In studies conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers Itzhak Aharon, Nancy Etcoff, Dan Ariely, Christopher F. Chabris, Ethan O'Connor, and Hans C. Breiter have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to look at the activity in men's brains when they were shown pictures of beautiful women's faces. Breiter and his colleagues found that the same part of the brain lights up as when a hungry person sees food, or a gambler eyes cash, or a drug addict sees a fix. Essentially, beauty and addiction trigger the same areas in the brain.

Some researchers link this addictive pursuit of good looks to evolution. Anthropologist Helen Fisher, suggests that primitive man might have unconsciously thought that a pretty woman had a better chance of bearing healthy children.

The Long and the Short of It

Likewise, evolution may have led women to prefer taller men.

Women will take just about any shortcoming in a man, except in the height department, according to Andrea McGinty, who founded the San Diego-based dating service It's Just Lunch.

McGinty helped ABCNEWS put together an experiment to test just how willing women are to date shorter men. We brought together several short men and asked them to stand next to taller men. We invited groups of women to look at the men and choose a date.

To see if the women would go for short guys who were successful, ABCNEWS' Lynn Sherr created extraordinary résumés for the shorter men. She told the women that the shorter men included a doctor, a best-selling author, a champion skier, a venture capitalist who'd made millions by the age of 25.

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