As always things aren’t as simple as headlines suggest and the headlines of science based blogs are no exception. Of course people don’t actually go around assessing how attractive other people think they are and modifying their behaviour accordingly. These psychological biases and effects go on below conscious awareness but the point is that they do happen. Previous studies have shown that humans will tend to treat attractive people better and trust them more than unattractive people. Recent research has looked at whether this increase in trust can work both ways, that people will be behave more trustingly the more attractive they are.

While not immediately obvious it would make sense for this to be the case, consider that trust is a sort of social contract and we have an implicit understanding of the levels of trust individuals in our lives deserve. If greater trust is afforded to one segment of the population based on a scalable factor such as attractiveness then a reciprocal increase in trust based on this would tend to develop in order for this social contract not to break down. In addition to attractiveness people have also shown to act more altruistically and trustingly towards others when they know they are being observed. This also makes sense, we seem to have a high sensitivity to how we are perceived by others and for good reason, how we are perceived affects how we are treated.

In this study subjects participated in an economic trust game, in this game the first player is given an amount of money, this player can then choose to give a second player a proportion of this money (an act of trust), the second player then has the amount he or she received multiplied by a factor (say three) and can then choose how much money to give back to the first player. Each player then keeps the money they have left in their pool at the end. In this way the amount of trust shown by the first player can influence the amount of money they receive back, a highly trusting person may give a large proportion of their money with the expectation of receiving an even larger amount back.

Participants in this game tend to give more money if they know they are being watched, or even if there are simply pictures of eyes visible to them (tapping into the social aspect of our behaviour). In this variation the participants were told that they were visible to the other player and their behaviour was then matched with how attractive they were, as determined by a panel of raters looking at photographs of the participants. The subjects’ estimation of their own attractiveness was also gathered and showed a positive correlation with the external rating (ie if a participant considered themselves attractive then other people were likely to as well).

The findings showed that in general the more attractive the participant was the more trusting their behaviour, if they thought the other player could see them. How the results were correlated also supports the contention at the start of this post, that this is not a conscious process. The researchers found that if they controlled for the external evaluation of attractiveness then the estimation of self attractiveness did not seem to correlate well with increased trust. The implication here is that this is a learned behaviour based on how they were treated by others in the past.

This is not to say that good looking people are always deserving of trust but it’s nice to know that, at least in this one instance, trusting behaviour can beget more trusting behaviour down the line. I find that a very optimistic result.