Imagine you're walking toward your parked car when a Jon Hamm lookalike approaches you and says, "Hey, mind if I take of a photo of you for a project?" A weird question for sure, but this guy seems nice and he's super attractive so you're not too freaked out by it.
Now imagine it's a guy who looks more like Steve Buscemi. Suddenly the off-putting question seems downright threatening and you run away in terror assuming a psychopath just tried to attack you.
Same question, two different faces, two different reactions. Plausible? Very much, according to a new study published in Gender Issues.
Researchers from Eastern Kentucky University set out to discover how the "halo effect"—that thing that makes us find attractive people smarter, funnier, and nicer for no legitimate reason—affects unattractive men. Would homely guys experience what the authors dubbed a "devil effect"? Or, when an attractive man and unattractive man performed the same mundane or threatening act, would they be treated equally?
For the experiment researchers recruited 170 college women to participate, presenting them each with two different scenarios.
Scenario A: In the first scenario the women were asked to imagine that a guy sitting next to them in class leans over and says, "‘Hey, I’m sorry but do you have a pen I could use? I guess I forgot one." The women were told they had never seen the man before; he was a complete stranger.
Scenario B: In the second scenario the women were asked to imagine walking to their car when a man—again a stranger—approaches and asks, "‘Excuse me, would I be able to take your picture? I think you would be a great model for a project that I’m working on. Have you ever tried modeling before?"
Each participant received both scenarios, one accompanied by an attractive face and the other accompanied by an unattractive face. To make it even, however, one participant might be given scenario A with an attractive man and scenario B with an unattractive man, whereas another participant would receive the opposite.
The two faces used were Caucasian males with brown hair and white T-shirts—but despite similar features, the researchers note one was clearly more attractive than the other.
The women were then asked how comfortable they felt in the scenario—would they let the man have a pen or take their picture? They were also asked about their impressions of the man "asking." Did he seem to have positive characteristics (attractive, nice, ambitious, good) or negative characteristics (creepy, rude, aggressive, mean, unattractive)?
The researchers found that in the mundane, non-threatening scenario (asking for a pen) attractiveness made no difference in compliance. An equal amount of women (96 percent) said they would give the guy a pen. It also made no difference in their perception of his personality.
However, in the more threatening scenario (asking to take a picture) attractiveness absolutely played a role—not in compliance but in judging his character.
A majority of women (96 percent) said they would not allow the man to take their picture, regardless of whether he was attractive or not. But the women judged the unattractive man much more harshly for asking, assuming him to be a creep or a bad person.
"Facially unattractive males receive a more negative response in terms of perceived characteristics from violating social norms than facially attractive males," explain the researchers. Adding, "A devil effect occurred amplifying the negative feelings toward the unattractive male."
What does this mean?
Essentially, as the researchers explain, this means unattractive men won't necessarily be judged on their looks until they mess up or violate social norms, in which case they will be judged even more harshly.
For example, if a man is on trial for a crime and happens to be unattractive, his character will be judged more harshly by a jury than that of an attractive man.
"Males who are on trial for a crime have already shown themselves to have violated social norms in one way or another. If the male is then viewed as unattractive, the magnified devil effect may result in larger fine or sentence," write the authors.
The researchers also explain how this effect might play into romantic endeavors, specifically online dating.
If an attractive guy posts not-so-flattering attributes on his profile (you know, like, "I hate feminists" or "Creed rocks!"), he may still be viewed as a good person. However, if an unattractive guy posts not-so-great info ("I live in my mom's basement") he will not be forgiven—and is more likely to get weeded out by women.
"If a male user provides unusual or alarming information in their profile, partnered with a facially unattractive profile picture, then he may be at risk for an attractiveness devil effect to occur," write the authors.
So let's all take a moment to remember that just because someone is hot does not mean they aren't a terrible person, and just because someone is not hot does not mean they are. Sometimes nice guys come in weird packages. Right, Steve?
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.