Do looks matter? Alumna’s study says yes

Do we perceive more attractive people as more trustworthy?

One UW-La Crosse alumna scientifically tested that theory while studying psychology at UW-L. Her undergraduate research study recently landed her some publicity in the national beauty magazine – Allure.

Erin Shinners,‘09, studied the relationship between attractiveness and trustworthiness as part of an undergraduate research project while in UW-L’s Psychology Honor’s Program.

“I thought it was interesting you could form such strong, automatic judgments about people in the first few seconds of meeting them,” she says.

Shinners’ research was centered around a concept called the halo effect — the tendency to make broad judgments about someone based on a single trait.

“There is a very large body of research on a host of good qualities and outcomes associated with physical attractiveness,” explains UW-L Psychology Professor Betsy Morgan. “Erin managed to find an under-studied arena by focusing on trustworthiness. I was impressed with her initiative.”

Shinners first had participants — UW-L undergraduate students in an introductory psychology class — rate facial photos of males and females on their physical attractiveness. Then, the two male and two female photos showing the largest discrepancy were shown to participants who rated them based on other characteristics such as intelligence, trustworthiness and likability. Participants were also presented a scenario of which of the four individuals they would trust most to loan money to with the promise of returning it with interest.

Overall, 68 percent of people studied thought a pretty woman would be the most trustworthy stranger. That statistic — featured in the June 2011 issue of Allure magazine – was only part of the findings. Shinners’ research also found attractiveness played a bigger role for females than males in determining trustworthiness. Unattractive females were found least trustworthy of all the groups with only three percent considered to be the most trustworthy stranger.

“Everyone judges people or gets judged on a daily basis,” Shinners explains. “You need to be aware of the biases you have because ultimately we could be making judgmental errors.”

Erin Shinners

Erin Shinners, '09, is finishing up an Educational Specialist degree in school psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology

That’s why Shinners is happy to see her research spreading to such a wide audience outside of the scientific community.

“It is pretty amazing to see your research in a national magazine,” she notes.

Her undergraduate research also helped her become more comfortable doing research in graduate school.

“It provided me the groundwork for the future and gave me confidence,” she explains.

She also gives credit to professors such as Linda and Scott Dickmeyer, Communication Studies, Alex O’Brien, Psychology, and Morgan, her faculty adviser, who helped her see how she could accomplish a formal, professional, three-semester research project in addition to her school work.

These professors were influential in who she is today, Shinners says.

Today Shinners is finishing up an Educational Specialist degree in school psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She will do an internship this fall in the Whitefish Bay School District near Milwaukee. She’d ultimately like to work in the Milwaukee area.

“I’m ready to come back to Wisconsin and start my life there,” she says.

UW-L Psychology Honor’s Program: A nine-credit program designed to give qualified students the opportunity to develop their understanding of and skills in psychological research. The Honors Project is conducted by the student under the supervision of a faculty adviser.

Featured in the Winter 2011-12 Magazine