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Beautiful appearance has always been seen as a competitive advantage for individuals. In recent years, a boom in the so-called “beauty economy” has given rise to industries such as cosmetic surgery and beauty products, as well as photo retouching apps. This trend reflects the ever-increasing anxiety people have about their appearance and the reward they believe that beauty can bring.

A recent Hollywood movie echoed this theme. In the 2018 film,I Feel Pretty, the female protagonist, Renee, accidentally hits her head and wakes up believing her appearance has magically been transformed. No physical change, however, has occurred. Instead, Renee’s newly “discovered” beauty is an internal makeover, which has an immediate and profound ripple effect on every aspect of her life. Believing that she is now highly attractive and desirable, Renee is confident enough to start a new romance and her dream job. The film thus depicts an important intuitive truth: an increase in an individual’s self-perceived attractiveness improves their self-confidence, thereby affecting their judgments and behavior without changing how physically attractive others perceive them to be.

Certainly, feeling beautiful may influence the desire to seek beauty-enhancing products, but how does feeling more attractive change one’s decision-making process in choice domains that are unrelated to beauty needs? The research, conducted by Jing Xu, Professor of Marketing, Guanghua School of Management, Peking University, and her collaborators, explored this question. This paper was recently published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

The following summary is excerpted from the paper Beautiful and Confident: How Boosting Self-Perceived Attractiveness Reduces Preference Uncertainty in Context-Dependent Choices.

01 Does the confidence boosted by feeling beautiful lead to more certainty in choice-making?

Aristotle once said that “beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction” (https://www.forbes.com/quotes/645/). Indeed, research in various fields shows that attractive people, compared to unattractive ones, are perceived as being more confident, more competent, and receiving more preferential treatment from others. These findings indicate that people hold the belief that “what is beautiful is good” in daily life.Researchers of this study hypothesized that individuals who perceive themselves as attractive develop and internalize these positive self-views, which leads to an increase in general self-confidence.They further ask the question: Does this boost in confidence as a result of feeling beautiful spillover to other aspects of self-evaluation (e.g., non-appearance related abilities such as managerial ability, cognitive ability, or preference certainty)?

Preference (un)certainty is an important subject of consumer decision-making. Stronger preference certainty makes people more certain of which alternative they prefer or the degree of their preference. For example, when choosing between a red shirt and a blue shirt, people are unsure about their degree of preference. Suppose consumers A and B both express preference ratings of 5 on a 7-point scale for a blue shirt, but they rate their degree of uncertainty about this preference differently. If Consumer A is more certain of his/her preference than Consumer B, then he/she is more confident of this preference and more likely to buy the blue shirt.In other words, preference uncertainty refers to whether one genuinely knows what he/she wants (or likes).

Prior research found that people are less susceptible to context effects and less likely to choose compromise options, all-average options, and default options when they experience greater preference certainty (or less preference uncertainty). The compromise effect is an example of choice context effects driven by preference uncertainty. Consider that Options A, B, and C are similar in overall attractiveness. The compromise Option B usually has average values on two competing attributes (e.g., average on price and quality), and Option A or C has a superior value on one attribute but an inferior value on the other attribute (e.g., A has a low price but low quality while C has a high price but high quality). Consumers tend to select the compromise option B because they perceive it as easier to justify and less likely to receive criticism. However, when consumers’ preference uncertainty is reduced, their reliance on the compromise option to resolve tradeoffs between the competing attributes decreases; therefore, the compromise option loses choice share and the compromise effect is attenuated.

In this regard, Professor Jing Xu and her co-authors propose that consumers who perceive their appearance as attractive will receive a boost in their self-confidence, which leads them to “believe” they are certain of what they want. As a result, their preference uncertainty decreases, making them less dependent on the choice contexts.

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02 Reduced preference uncertainty by self-perceived attractiveness: a spillover effect of self-confidence

Across five laboratory experiments and one field experiment in China, the United States, and Australia, researchers demonstrate how a boost in self-perceived attractiveness improves self-confidence, decreases preference uncertainty, and consequently reduces consumers’ reliance on the choice context to make decisions. Product decision contexts range from choices of snacks, pens, and vacation places to choices of roommates and college courses. In one study, participants in the attractive condition were asked to list three things that made them feel physically attractive and elaborate on two of them. Participants in the control condition listed three things they did the previous week and elaborated on two. Next, participants were shown three dark chocolate bars and were told that they could buy a dark chocolate bar at 50% off the retail price, as appreciation for their participation. The chocolate bars varied in terms of their health benefits and taste ratings. Participants were informed that “The higher the cocoa percentage, the more health benefits you will get.” The three chocolate bars differed in cocoa content and taste (the chocolate bar with higher cocoa content was healthier; however, the taste would be more bitter). The results of this experiment showed that,compared to those in the control condition, participants who perceive themselves as attractive are less likely to choose the compromise option(the bar with the medium cocoa content and moderately bitter taste).

The other five studies replicated these results and consistently show that feeling beautiful reduces people's tendency to choose compromise options, all-average options, and default options. More importantly, these results only held when participants are not aware of the connection between feeling beautiful and confident.That is, when people correctly attribute the increased self-confidence to its source, the self-perceived attractiveness, this effect is weakened, making the difference no longer significant. Therefore, the effect of self-confidence increased by feeling attractive can generalize to other domains, however, this generalization effect can be adjusted and corrected by personal reflection.

03 Some takeaways for marketers

Using self-perceived attractiveness to influence consumer preferences is already a common practice. Marketers try various ways to make customers feel attractive, such as the slanted mirrors used in fitting rooms in apparel shops, the beauty filters used in online virtual fitting rooms, and the salespeople who constantly make compliments to customers. These marketing tactics help sales as they boost consumers' moods, or make customers feel beautiful in whatever they wear. The study, however, further investigated how self-perceived attractiveness affected their choices that are unrelated to beauty needs.It is found that consumers who feel attractive tend to accept an option with both benefits and drawbacks, thus being less likely to choose compromise and default options. This is good news for niche brands and innovative brands.Marketers can nudge them away from the default option and the "safe" options (i.e., all-average and compromise options) and persuade them to try new brands and products.

However, as the results of the study reveal, as well as the ending of the movie I Feel Prettysuggests, feeling beautiful alone never engenders our understanding of what we truly need or prefer. The certainty of preference comes from learning to weigh the importance, to know our true needs, and to be able to make trade-offs in difficult decisions. In this vein, these findings serve as a reminder that consumers shall be aware of the potential spillover effect of self-confidence brought about by feeling attractive.And for marketers who aim to improve customers’ satisfaction and well-being, it is wise to help customers understand their true preferences and deliver them with real value, rather than magnifying the effect of feeling attractive.

About the Author

Professor Jing Xu is Professor of Marketing at Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. She is the Vice Director of the Behavioral Science Lab at Guanghua School of Management. Professor Xu earned her Ph.D. in Marketing from Stephen M. Ross School of Business, the University of Michigan in 2007.

Professor Xu's research involves using psychological theories to understand how consumers form judgment and the process by which they make product choices. In particular, she is interested in studying how environmental cues or factors influence the consumers' tendency to seek uniqueness in product choices. Professor Xu also studies how different processing styles influence consumer choice in large assortments. Her research has appeared in world-class journals such as Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Sloan Management Review, Journal of Marketing Research, Acta Psychologica Sinica, etc. Professor Xu currently teaches Consumer Behavior, Marketing for Social Impact, and Business Ethics to undergraduate and MBA students.