Women judged on their appearance are considered less competent

Doesn't Sarah Palin look pretty in girly pink? Or does she look competent?A study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology has found that women judged solely on their appearance are marked out as less competent than those judged on a broader basis.

In this research, 133 undergraduates – 96 women and 37 men – were asked to judge either Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin or actress Angelina Jolie.  Half of the participants were asked to write a few lines on their “thoughts and feelings about this person”, whereas the other half were asked to write their “thoughts and feelings about this person’s appearance.” The students were subsequently asked to rate their subject in terms of various attributes, including competence.

Participants who wrote about Jolie’s or Palin’s appearance were more positive in their assessments than those who assessed their qualities as a person, but rated these two celebrities far lower in terms of competence, intelligence and capability. Interestingly, this trend applied to both men and women, as well as to liberals, moderates and conservatives.

The authors argue that women who are judged on the basis of their looks are construed as ‘objects’ and are subsequently perceived as less human.  Such objectification strips women of characteristics that are regarded as fundamental to being human, such as self determination and unique talents.  Without these key human traits, objectified women can easily be brushed aside and judged as incompetent

“Viewing another individual as low in human essence”, write the authors, “reflects a superficial, more surface level evaluation in which people are even likened to robots and automata”.

Somewhat frighteningly, by dehumanizing women people feel more free to be hostile towards them. “Research documents that stripping people of their humanity plays a role in legitimizing aggression”, the authors write.

The Jezebel blog has a more succinct take on the implications of this research for women. “The more we objectify women, judge them as other, and make them less human, the easier it is for all of us to tear them down and determine they’re not good enough”, they say.

Intelligence and beauty are not mutually exclusive, as celebrities such as actress Natalie Portman (Harvard psychology graduate) and model Lily Cole (arts student at Cambridge) aptly demonstrate.  What is most disconcerting about this study for me is how pervasive the tendency to judge a woman on her appearance is – regardless of gender or political inclination, participants focusing on looks rated the celebrities as less capable.  Underestimating women on the basis of their attractiveness allows society to shift away from being a meritocracy and does all women, conventionally attractive or not, a huge disservice.

You may also like


  1. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  2. Granted, judging people on their appearance might be evolutionarily beneficial when it comes to fitness and so on. The objectification of women that follows, however, is probably societal and isn’t for the best.

    Thanks for your comment and sparking the debate though!

  3. Of course, there is also a body of research that documents the fact that there is some benefit and evolutionary motive to judging people by their appearances.

    1999: Rubenstein A J; Kalakanis L; Langlois J H
    Infant preferences for attractive faces: a cognitive explanation.
    Developmental psychology 1999;35(3):848-55.

    An evolutionary/chaotic theory of beauty and meaning
    Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems
    Volume 19, Issue 2, 1996, Pages 103-124

    Jablonski N. “The Evolution of Human Skin and Skin Color”
    Annual Reviews Anthropology 33 (2004) 585-623

    Facial attraction and evolution

    These and many other studies suggest that beauty may not be just skin deep, and cultural interpretations of aesthetics, beauty and so forth have a firm footing in biological fitness assessment. Of course, such opinion is politically incorrect, but science is often so. Admittedly, I haven’t read the study, but the fact that article quotes the authors opinion of the implications for women, but only passingly mentions that the trend is in fact, universal , gives me the impression of being one of the “pro-feminism propaganda category” at the outset.

Leave a Reply