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.
Nothing worked. The women always chose the tall men. Sherr asked whether there'd be anything she could say that would make the shortest of the men, who was 5 feet, irresistible. One of the women replied, "Maybe the only thing you could say is that the other four are murderers." Another backed her up, saying that had the taller men had a criminal record she might have been swayed to choose a shorter man. Another said she'd have considered the shorter men, if the taller men had been described as "child molesters."
The desire for tall men begins very young, apparently. ABCNEWS gave elementary school students a test, asking them to match a small, medium or large figure of a man with a series of words. The kids overwhelmingly linked the tall figure to the words strong, handsome and smart. The linked the short figure to the words sad, scared and weak. More than half of the kids also chose to link the short figure to the words, dumb, yucky and no friends.
Add 'Lookism' to the List
To conduct an experiment, 20/20 hired actors — some great looking, some not — and put them in situations to gauge how often the "lookers" would get preferential treatment.
In the first test, we put two women next to cars without gas in Atlanta. The women wore the same outfit.
Both Michelle and Tracey stood helplessly by cars with their hoods up. For the average-looking Michelle, a few pedestrians stopped but only made suggestions as where she could walk to get gasoline. But for the beautiful Tracey, cars came screeching to a halt. More than a dozen cars stopped and six people went to get Tracey gas.
The two actresses helped with our second test, at an Atlanta shopping mall where both women set up a table and sold calendars and teddy bears to raise money for charity. Overall, it looked as if both women were doing well with their sales. Then we counted the money and found Tracey collected 50 percent more.
What if we tested something requiring qualifications, like getting a job? Looks shouldn't matter then but would they?
20/20 hired two men and two women to apply for jobs. The clearest difference between them was looks while they shared similar education and work experience backgrounds. To match them up more closely, we rewrote their résumés to match.
Mark, who was our more attractive applicant, and Mike, the more ordinary-looking one, both had corporate experience and had run their own companies. Donia, our more attractive female applicant, and her counterpart, Amy, both had been secretaries and saleswomen. A consultant trained them so their behavior matched.
Hidden cameras captured interviewers being warmer and friendlier to the better looking applicants and being less friendly to the other applicants. With Amy and Donia, for example, one job interviewer told Amy employees got a 45-minute lunch break but with Donia the interviewer said there was a flexible policy about lunch. Who got the job offer? Donia. Amy never even got a call back.
We ran similar tests using Mike and the especially good looking Mark. Would looks make less of a difference when the interviewers were judging men? Apparently not. On the first interview, for a sales job, the interviewer told Mike he'd call him later but he never called. With Mark, the interviewer was eager to have him return for a tryout day.
"It's a non-conscious process," said Tom Cash, a psychologist at Old Dominion University. "They assume that more attractive people have an array of valued characteristics."
We should add the bias of "lookism" to sexism and racism. It's just as bad but we don't need a federal program.