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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 12:13 am

Venus envy

PHOTO COURTESY AMY ALKON
Amy Alkon
I’m a 30-something woman, tall and thin, whom friends describe as beautiful. Perhaps for this reason, I’m often confronted with rude social assaults by people who assume things are handed to me on a silver platter. I am financially independent and have a full-time job and own a home and car. I dress and act modestly. Yet I’m repeatedly insulted by people who suggest I got my job and other benefits because of my looks. What can I do to avoid or deflect these demeaning insinuations? – Not Just Skin Deep

There’s a considerable pile of research that has found a “beauty premium” – a bias toward hiring and promoting the hotties of the workforce – and, depressingly, an “ugliness penalty” holding back the more Shrekalicious among us.

But it turns out that the methodology behind this slew of findings was a bit overly broad. According to a 2017 paper by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa and sociologist Mary Still, once you drill down into the details you see a more nuanced result: “It appears that more beautiful workers earn more, not because they are beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent,” and have more desirable personality traits: more conscientiousness and extroversion and less neuroticism.

Sure, this probably sounds absurd – this association of good looks with intelligence, a winning personality and good health. However, take that last one. It turns out that beauty is more than nice human scenery; it’s also advertising for what’s on the inside. For example, consider the preference across cultures for faces with “bilateral symmetry.”

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds on why outer beauty might reflect good stuff on the inside. However, for one more example, Kanazawa and Still speculate about the personality benefit associated with being pretty (referencing evolutionary psychologist Aaron Lukaszewski’s research): “Because physically attractive children are more likely to experience positive feedback from interpersonal interactions,” they’re more likely to develop an extroverted personality than less physically attractive children.

Getting back to you, there’s a good chance you’re seeing your problem a little too broadly – seeing “people” engaging in the “rude social assaults.” Research on sex differences in competition by psychologist Joyce Benenson suggests it’s probably women who are doing most or all of the sneering.

Men – from childhood on – tend to be comfortable with hierarchy, openly duking it out for top spots in a way women are not. Women tend to engage in covert aggression – like with frosty treatment and undermining remarks – in hopes of making another woman dim her own shine and voluntarily relocate lower down the ladder. The best way to combat such sniping in the moment is to go placid poker face, treating their comments like lint to brush off.

In the long run, however, your best bet is being somebody who’s hard to hate. Research by behavioral economist Ernst Fehr suggests it’s in our self-interest to be altruistic – to engage in behavior that’s somewhat costly to us (in, say, time or energy) in order to benefit other people.

Finally, if I’m right that women are your main detractors, consider Benenson’s observation that women show each other they aren’t a threat through sharing vulnerabilities – revealing weaknesses and problems.

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