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If You Think Beautiful People Hold All the Cards, You're Right, Says a Researcher

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After seven years of research, psychologist Thomas Cash says he has learned something: “There’s more to the subject of beauty than meets the eye.” That, he quickly adds, is not just another cliché. “Beautiful people are perceived as sexier, smarter, happier, more employable and more mentally stable. Being unattractive can place a person in social and economic jeopardy.”

Cash, 32, an associate professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., once had papers graded with the students’ pictures attached. The attractive students not only got better marks, but graders invented excuses for good-looking students with bad papers (e.g., “He just wasn’t trying hard” and “She isn’t living up to her potential”). In another experiment, Cash submitted résumés with photos to personnel consultants. The best-looking were usually recommended before candidates with identical records. Cash also cites a 1975 study done at the University of Maryland that suggests juries are not so likely to convict attractive defendants as ugly ones.

Bias toward beauty starts early. By 4, children are influenced by it, Cash says. “Writers make bad people grotesque—the wicked stepmother or the witch,” he explains. “Good people are beautiful—Cinderella or Snow White.”

He categorizes Jacqueline Kennedy’s fascination with homely Ari Onassis as “an exchange,” a phenomenon that occurs less frequently nowadays. “Beauty and bucks used to be an acceptable match,” says Cash, “but as women have gained economic self-sufficiency other qualities, including the attractiveness of a man, have become more important.”

Cash believes people generally pick mates and even friends on the same level of attractiveness. There is also surprising unanimity in defining beauty—bright eyes, symmetrical features and a thin to medium build.

“People want a predictable, controllable world,” Cash explains. “In the absence of experience with another person, we use whatever information is available to anticipate what that person is going to be like—even if it’s only looks. Judgments are made on that basis. The idea is particularly distasteful to Americans, who have the notion all people are created equal.” Beauty can have drawbacks, however. In Cash’s studies beautiful people are often perceived as self-centered, materialistic and intimidating. But on balance, beauty is almost always more positive than negative.

Cash, who regards himself as moderately handsome (“a 7 on the Bo Derek scale”), grew up on a big chicken farm in Nashville. He recalls one traumatic high school blind date: “She was fat, smelled bad and had braces that looked like half the fences in Texas in her mouth. I had two reactions: ‘Wait till I get the guy who fixed me up’ and ‘God, I bet she catches hell a lot. I better be nice.’ ”

A job as a shoe salesman got him interested in studying human nature. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, he was steered into beauty research by an adviser while working on his doctorate at George Peabody College.

He lives in a ranch-style house in Norfolk and spends as much time as possible with fiancée Diane Marine, 31 (whom Cash also considers a 7). Both are divorced, and Cash has two children—Tommy, 13, and Benjamin, 8—who visit on holidays.

Cash has already parlayed his research into consulting jobs with the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association and with Clairol. “I want to find out if using cosmetics improves a person’s self-image,” Cash says. Nonetheless, he cautions, never underestimate the success potential of the ungorgeous. “Look,” he says, “at John Belushi.”