Final Study Blog

How do I look?: A Study Looking at the Effects of Stereotypical Physical Appearance and Socioeconomic Status

Countless of times, we face the mirror to fix our hair, do our make-up, or perform our daily regimen of body grooming. However, there are just some things that we can’t take control of—like how other people would see us or how we would appeal to them. This sounds too superficial, until you realize its implications in the lives of those who don’t really look nice for many people.

We are not actually referring to those who feel that they are unattractive, but we are speaking for those who are stereotyped and stigmatized for being and looking like someone who, for many people, is unattractive—people addicted to drugs or “drug addicts” in politically incorrect terms. These individuals seriously and essentially need rehabilitation more than anything that has something do with stigmatization, judgment, and especially death. These people are most certainly unlucky to be living in the Philippines right now, where the President is the primary source of stigma and stereotypes regarding them. They are unlucky to be treated as the enemies of his so-called “war on drugs” that, as of December 2016, has killed 2, 167 suspected drug personalities and 4, 049 victims of extrajudicial killings, mostly from the poor (Gavilan, 2016). How unlucky can they get for not being and not looking “nice”?

It seems so superficial to think that we judge based on looks. But scientific studies have shown that in fact, we do. Physical appearances matter when we try to make inferences about a person. Years of research has shown that attractive people or those with widely spread eyes, small nose, straight teeth and nice facial expression do have advantages over those who are not. This is because physical beauty is also perceived as an indicator of inner beauty. Dion (1972) coined the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype.  In his studies, he found that attractive individuals are more socially desirable, happier, and more successful over the less attractive ones. Faces can even influence perception of intelligence, sociability, and morality (Alicke, 1986). This may be why people even preferred them as friends! (Dion, 1973).

A person being rich or poor can also influence our judgements. In the Philippines, people with high socioeconomic status have negative views towards the poor, such as poor people being lazy, unmotivated, undisciplined, not hardworking, and not capable. Interestingly, people in low SES did not have such views towards the poor (Bernardo, 2013).

So yes, we do judge based on physical appearance and socioeconomic status but does this affect how we act towards them? Perhaps. When an attractive child and unattractive child does the something wrong, usually it’s with the unattractive child that the act is seen more negatively (Dion, 1972). So this can affect how you treat the person afterwards. But in the context of helping, it is important to note that not all positive impressions lead to positive behavioral responses and vice versa. Grant and Mayer (2009) discovered inconsistent relationships between people’s motives behind helping and their actual actions.

So here’s what we did to find out. For the first part of our study, we asked twenty people to put into words and drawing their description of someone they consider as mukhang adik. To guide the participants, they were given a list of specific features to describe which included the face shape, eyes, skin tone, nose, built, posture, and clothing among others. After collating the responses, we took note of the most common and salient answers and used them to come up with a representative description and face sketch of someone who is mukhang adik that we used for the second part of the study. We also made a representative set of descriptions and face sketch for someone who is mukhang mabait  based on the characteristics considered to be associated with such a person according to previous studies.

For the second phase of our study, we tried to see if a difference in the physical appearance of the two characters affected the impressions people form of them. We also formulated 3 vignettes of 3 different situations wherein the mukhang mabait and mukhang adik are characters. In the vignette, the participants are faced with situations wherein the characters were asking for help. Using these scenarios, we tried to see if the physical appearance of the character affected the helping behaviour of the participants. Aside from physical appearance, we also varied the description of the socioeconomic status of the character (i.e. the character had a high ses or low ses) to see if the socioeconomic person of a person asking for help affected the helping behavior of the participants.

After collating the responses we found out that people see a mukhang adik as someone who has a diamond face shape, messy hair, reddish eyes, normal nose, yellowish teeth, slouched posture, blank facial expression, dirty clothing, and thin body built. However, all of these descriptions weren’t used due to some incongruency with the mukhang mabait face. Nose, hair, eyes, and built were excluded from the final description because they didn’t have a counterpart in the mukhang mabait stimulus (Shaw, 1981; Albright, Kenny, & Malloy, 1988; Borkenau & Liebler, 1992; Kenny, Horner, Kashy, & Chu, 1992; McKelvie, 1993; Eli, Bar-Tat, & Kostovetzki,, 2001). So the final features included in the second phase were diamond face shape, yellowish teeth, slouched posture, blank facial expression, and dirty clothing.

These physical descriptions were coupled with other information to complete the description of each stimulus. We found that males are more likely perceived as mukhang adik. In addition to this, a study by Geniole and colleagues (2012) found that female faces are positively correlated with judgments of nurturing and negatively correlated with perceived aggression. Another study confirmed this by saying that males are judged more harshly than a female (Ahola, Hellström, & Christianson, 2010). With these findings and the results that males are more likely to be seen as mukhang adik, gender facet was also added to the study to confirm or debunk the findings of the mentioned studies.

Moreover, we also found that the participants perceived a mukhang adik as someone who belongs to the low socioeconomic status. Dion (1973) stated that more attractive individuals or those we used in our study as mukhang mabait individuals are seen as more successful – so it’s less likely that they belong in the low socioeconomic status. With these, the socioeconomic facet was also added to the study.

The results of our study seems to support the existing studies about favoring the good-looking individuals and about the stigmatization of individuals addicted to drugs. There have been high levels of stigmatizing views found from the general public, police officers, and even health care professionals like doctors and nurses regarding individuals addicted to drugs (Lloyd, 2013; Natan, Beyil, & Neta, 2009). And now that the Philippine administration’s “war on drugs” is well underway, the negative views about these individuals especially escalate the existing stereotyping and stigmatization of this group of people.

Meanwhile, the socioeconomic status (SES) (low SES and high SES) did not affect the impressions of the participants of our study to the two groups of people (mukhang mabait  and mukhang adik) presented to them. This may be due to the association of negative attitudes with people low in SES by only the participants belonging in high SES (Bernardo, 2013). And since the participants in our study comprised of difference SES (half from low SES, half from middle to high SES), the mixed impressions towards the characters in the vignette garnered no significant differences. Empathy towards the stigmatized group (low SES) may have also played a role (Batson, Chang, Orr, & Rowland, 2002) in the insignificance of SES in the formation of impressions of the participants. The participants may have empathized with the low SES character in the vignette (portrayed as unable to pay for school tuition, unable to text or call friends because of lack of resources, and carrying bags of hand-me-down clothes and public market goods) that they viewed them not so much negatively.

The participants’ impressions towards the two groups of people in the study were also not affected by physical appearance (mukhang mabait  and mukhang adik) and socioeconomic status (SES) (low SES and high SES) combined. This may be due to the incongruence of the information in some of the conditions, such as mukhang mabait and low SES and mukhang adik and high SES. People with the characteristics of mukhang mabait are oftentimes linked with having high SES, because of their presentable appearance. Similarly, individuals who are addicted to drugs (portrayed in mukhang adik) have been associated with having low socioeconomic status as a stereotype (Natan et al., 2009). With these incongruent cues, the participants may been focusing their attention to the non-verbal cues showed (the appearance as mukhang mabait and mukhang adik) than the verbal cues (implicit communication of SES such as owning a company, having a driver, and carrying paper bags of branded clothes). This is consistent with the finding that when presented with incongruent cues, the non-verbal cue will prevail in forming impressions (Awamleh, 2003).

The results of the second phase of our study emphasizes the importance of context in the way people act and process information. Being part of a collectivist culture, the sense of responsibility for the well-being of others, strangers even, is very evident. The Sikolohiyang Pilipino term of kapwa can clearly be seen at work in the way the participants responded to the different situations. An analytic framework of the indigenous Philippine value structure shows that the core of the value system is kapwa, which is the deep solidarity Filipinos find in valuing the connectedness of self and other (Enriquez, 1994). Two related values regarding how Filipino people interact with others are the concepts of pakikipagkapwa and kagandahang-loob. The act of pakikipagkapwa involves treating the other person as kapwa or fellow human being while kagandahang-loob (‘beauty-of-will’) is characterized by the willingness to help who Filipinos consider as kapwa who is in need (Reyes, 2015). Closely related to these two values are empathy and empathic concern.

Individually, physical appearance and socioeconomic status did not affect the participant’s decision to engage in prosocial behavior. Regardless of physical appearance and socioeconomic status, a person may still treat the character as kapwa or fellow human being. Furthermore, although insignificant, differences between the results of the interaction of physical appearance and socioeconomic status on prosocial behavior were noted. Results show that participants expressed more likelihood of engaging in helping behavior when the character was part of the mukhang mabait condition, while less likely being able to help those in the mukhang adik condition.

The findings of our study suggest that while the specific stigma and stereotypes linked with people perceived to be mukhang adik may have influenced the impressions attached to them, these did not significantly affect whether people would help them in lesser or greater amounts. We find this hopeful, however minimal. It is more ideal that the stigma attached to them should first and foremost be reframed and eventually be dismantled. Our study is just ne of the first steps towards examining how the general population regard others who are victimized by negative stereotypes and stigma, especially those individuals who are addicted to drugs or suspected to be addicted to drugs.


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