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Do people think attractive people are smarter?

There is a commonly held belief that attractive people are perceived as more intelligent. But is this really true? Do people actually equate beauty with brains? Let’s take a look at what research says on this topic.

The “What is beautiful is good” stereotype

The belief that attractive people possess positive traits beyond mere physical appeal is known as the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype. This stereotype suggests that people tend to assign a host of favorable traits to those they deem physically attractive, including kindness, likeability, and intelligence.

The roots of this belief may come from an evolutionary perspective – finding an attractive mate increases chances of reproductive success. So we may have an inborn tendency to equate beauty with other positive qualities that would make someone a good partner. This instinctive reaction may lead us to assume attractive people have many positive attributes, including intelligence.

Studies on perceptions of attractive people

Numerous studies have looked into perceptions people hold about the intelligence of attractive individuals. The results show a clear tendency for people to believe attractive people are more intelligent.

A classic study from the 1970s had participants evaluate job applicant profiles that included headshots. Applicants with more attractive photos were consistently rated as more intelligent and qualified, even though the resume qualifications were actually the same across applicants.

Other studies have found similar effects. Participants shown photos of attractive people along with character profiles rated the attractive individuals as more intelligent. Attractive individuals are also more likely to be hired and promoted in real world settings, indicating assumptions of superior competence.

Possible explanations

Why does this bias occur? There are a few possible explanations that have been proposed by psychologists:

  • The halo effect – Positive attributes like intelligence “radiate” from initial impressions of attractiveness.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy – Treating attractive people as intelligent leads them to perform better and gain more confidence.
  • Shared genetics – Genes linked to intelligence may be indicators of developmental health and attractiveness.

The halo effect is a well-known cognitive bias where initial positive impressions influence perceptions of additional traits. For attractive individuals, we may automatically assume they are intelligent as well, creating a halo effect.

Treating attractive individuals as competent from a young age may also lead them to internalize these expectations. This self-fulfilling prophecy can enhance real intelligence over time due to increased confidence and opportunities.

Some research also suggests attractiveness and intelligence may both stem in part from strong developmental health. So shared genetics could play a role in some cases.

Is there any truth to this stereotype?

While perceptions are clearly biased, is there any real truth to the idea that good-looking people are more intelligent? A few interesting findings suggest there could be some substance to this belief:

  • One study found a small but significant correlation between attractiveness ratings and IQ scores.
  • People rated as physically attractive tend to have slightly higher SAT scores on average.
  • Physically fit individuals also score higher on intelligence tests.

So there does appear to be a real, though weak, link between attractiveness and measurable intelligence. This could be due to shared genetics around developmental health, as well as social advantages enjoyed by the attractive from a young age.

How strong is the bias?

Perceived differences in intelligence based on attractiveness tend to be modest in size but quite consistent. For example:

Study Key Findings
Jackson et al. 1995 Attractive individuals were perceived as 12% more intelligent on average.
Kanazawa and Kovar 2004 A standard deviation increase in attractiveness was associated with a 3% increase in perceived intelligence.
Denny 2008 A standard deviation increase in attractiveness was associated with a 5-10% increase in perceived intelligence.

So while not enormous, the bias does seem to be robust and produce a measurable “beauty premium” regarding assumed intelligence.

Is the bias valid?

The bias clearly exists in perceptions of people. But is it actually valid? Do attractive individuals deserve the “bonus” of assumed intelligence they receive?

On one hand, the modest correlations between attractiveness, fitness, and intelligence lend some validity to the bias. Attractive people do tend to be slightly smarter on average from the research available.

However, the size of the bias far outweighs the actual differences measured by science. So for any individual person, they should be judged on their own merits, not assumed traits.

While understandable, people should make an effort to overcome this bias in evaluating individuals for opportunities, to ensure the most qualified receive them regardless of appearance.

Are gender differences present?

Like many social biases, perceptions linking attractiveness and intelligence do not affect all groups equally. Some key gender differences have been noted:

  • The attractiveness stereotype is stronger for perceptions of women.
  • Intelligence is more strongly emphasized in perceptions of men.
  • Attractive men receive smaller boosts to perceived intelligence.

So it seems social expectations around gender roles interact with this bias. The emphasis on physical beauty for women strengthens the stereotype in their case. Intelligence perceptions are more central to stereotypes about men.

Study Key Finding
Johnson et al. 2010 Attractiveness more strongly impacted perceived intelligence for female faces.
Luxen and Van De Vijver 2006 Attractiveness only impacted perceived intelligence for female profiles.

These findings demonstrate how social biases around attractiveness and intelligence contain layers of complexity that depend on additional factors like gender.

Does culture matter?

Like gender roles, cultural values also seem to play a part in the attractiveness stereotype. The strength of the bias differs across cultures:

  • Collectivist cultures show weaker bias than individualistic cultures.
  • Nations with more gender equality exhibit less bias.

For example, one study compared attractiveness biases in Japan to the United States. The bias was significantly smaller in collectivist Japan compared to individualistic America.

Other research has found nations with higher gender equality have smaller intelligence biases based on attractiveness. So cultural values seem to mediate the stereotyping effect.


In summary, several key conclusions can be drawn about the “beauty premium” regarding perceived intelligence:

  • A consistent but modest bias exists linking attractiveness to perceived intelligence.
  • This belief contains some kernels of truth but tends to be exaggerated.
  • Gender, culture, and individual differences all intersect with this bias.
  • Perceptions should be separated from reality when evaluating individuals.

So while the bias exists, it ultimately reveals more about the perceiver and their values than the abilities of attractive individuals. With awareness, intelligence can be judged accurately regardless of appearance.


The belief that “beauty equals brains” is a common bias that research has repeatedly confirmed. People do tend to perceive attractive individuals as more intelligent across many contexts. However, these perceived differences in intelligence are largely an exaggeration of quite modest correlations between attractiveness and ability.

While the bias may have roots in evolutionary instincts, in modern society it can lead to unfair disadvantages for those deemed less attractive. Awareness of this tendency allows us to overcome it and judge individuals accurately, regardless of appearance. Intelligent people come in all shapes and forms.