The Ugly Truth About Beauty

ByABC News
August 22, 2002, 4:05 PM

Aug. 23 — -- 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.