By Keith Morrison
updated 1/13/2004 10:02:44 AM ET
Anybody who watches reality TV knows that when it comes to landing a date with a beautiful woman, the "Average Joe" doesn't stand much of a chance against a handsome hunk. But does the preference for physical attractiveness go deeper than just romance? Even when looks shouldn't count -- for instance, at a bank or the doctor -- are beautiful people treated better than everyone else? With our hidden cameras watching, Dateline set up some tests to find out.
Everybody knows how much importance we attach to beauty, maybe too much sometimes. But have you ever wondered how different life might be if you were just a little better looking?
Anthony Bernard and Allison Meiersonne are models. Good looks help them make a living. Both of them know they are lucky -- it's what they were born with. But we wondered if their genetic advantage in the beauty department could be helping them in ways they never imagined?
For example, would a stranger come to their aid before assisting an average-looking person? Might they be receiving better service from repair people? Do people trust them more, just because they're good looking?
“A person's physical attractiveness -- the look that they're basically born with -- impacts every individual literally from birth to death,” says Dr. Gordon Patzer, dean of the College of Business Administration at Roosevelt University. He's spent 30 years studying and writing about physical attractiveness. “People are valued more who are higher in physical attractiveness. As distasteful at that might be, that's the reality.”
Valued more? We wondered and decided to find a group of average, nice looking individuals and super, highly attractive people to test this attractiveness phenomenon. We looked for people with similar traits: the same race, no discernible accents, similar age groups. That way the focus would be exclusively on attractiveness.
So we hired models Anthony and Allison, and asked two NBC employees, Loren and another Anthony, to hit the streets, a bank, an auto shop, and even ride the bus, all the time wearing hidden cameras to see just how much looks matter.
First, we gave our foursome folders filled with papers and had them drop the contents on a New York City street. Would anyone stop to help?
When model Allison drops her file, there seems to be a sudden change in the weather. Is it raining men? A man even uses his cane to stop the pages from flying away.
“It was just amazing how people would flock to me to clean it up,” says Allison. “I have dropped my purse and wallet and people always help me pick it up. But I never really thought about if somebody else dropped their wallet, maybe they wouldn't help them. It just seems strange to me.”
NBC staffer Loren is about to be that someone else. She drops the papers and people step by, rather than stop. About a dozen people pass by before, finally, a woman offers help.
But that's nothing compared to our other NBC colleague, Anthony. When he drops the folder, the sidewalk literally clears. Even as he spreads out the papers he's supposedly collecting, people just walk on by.
“I thought, hey I’m dressed in a shirt and a tie,” says Anthony. “I looked pretty professional, so maybe someone may stop and help me out. And people just kept stepping over.”
“I felt embarrassed,” says Loren. “You know wait a second, I think I’m somewhat attractive. Why didn’t anyone help me?”
Model Anthony wouldn't know how that feels. He drops the folder and immediately an entire family stops to help. We wondered if this was just random chance, or is something else going on? We asked Dr. Patzer about our findings.
“That was a classic example of everything we find in the scholarly research that we do,” says Dr. Patzer. “Those of higher physical attractiveness are automatically or immediately assisted, provided help.”
And, as we saw with the family helping Anthony, it's not just about appealing to the opposite sex. While our research was not scientific, Dr. Patzer says more controlled studies do show people go out of their way to help attractive people of the same and opposite sex because they want to be liked and accepted by these good looking people.
We watched for this willingness to help when our test subjects stood on the street for five minutes seeming hopelessly lost, not asking anybody for assistance, just waiting to see if any kind soul would notice and stop.
Our NBC volunteers had no luck, but our super-attractive models were a different story. Allison had lots of helpers. A man even rolled down his car window to offer assistance. And model Anthony? He’ll never be lost.
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“I would hold my map and I’d be looking at the map and looking around and
I’d make eye contact with someone and boom, they’d be reeled in,” says Anthony.
“The lady walks past him, comes back, offers a large explanation of the layout of the city, but even does an ultimate trust…and offers the general part of the city in which she lives,” says Dr. Patzer. “So it verifies very well again we trust more those people of higher physical attractiveness.”
Trust? We watched to see what would happen when our subjects ask passersby for change of a dollar. Everyone did pretty well here, but there were differences, especially when it came to trust.
Many people did not stop or respond to NBC’s Anthony. But for model Anthony, not only did more people stop, but they seemed to feel Anthony was safer, more honest. Like foreign tourists who weren’t even sure how much change equals a dollar, so they held out their money and let Anthony take the correct amount.
“We had situations where people were going out of their way to try to do stuff for us that other people didn't get,” he says.
For Allison, even if people couldn't find the change to give her, they would offer helpful suggestions. And she says that people just start conversations with here, something we saw when she and Loren went for a bus ride during rush hour. We wondered if anyone would offer them a seat. While sitting proved not to be an option for either of them that morning, one man, who starts out standing equidistant between Loren and Allison, strikes up a conversation with Allison for the entire bus ride.