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Natural Characteristics That Influence Environment: How Physical Appearance Affects Personality

Nathan C. Popkins
Northwestern University

This paper proposes that physical appearance is a major factor in the development of personality, because people form opinions by what they see in a person physically, and respond to that person accordingly. In turn, people tend to fulfill the expectations they believe others have for them. Several examples are given of experiments and literature that support this assertion, and a method is suggested for more directly observing this phenomenon experimentally.

Environment and Nature

The debate as to whether a people's personality was more influenced by their genetics or their environment has raged for years. Current estimates in the nature-nurture battle place the weight of each at right around 50% (McMartin, 1995). One possible flaw in this estimate, however, lies in the fact that the question of how much people's nature influences their environment has been largely left unanswered. For this question to be properly answered, however, it must be determined what natural factors could possibly have a strong influence on environment. Once this cause and effect relationship is established, it should be much more convenient to accurately examine what causes people's personality to develop as it does.

Under the stated premise, it is necessary to examine what characteristics people possess that could possibly have an effect on their environment and that would, in turn, at least partially determine how the variable set of their environment (other people, basically) would behave. Naturally, one factor that could affect the responses of others is personality. Obviously, if someone is very antisocial, for example, people will not, in all likelihood, respond openly and warmly to this person (if given the opportunity to interact with an anti-social person in the first place). However, trends like this in people's personality tend to be self-perpetuating (Ewen, 1998). Because of this, describing how a trait affects the environment's response is best described by the trait itself, and it seems that not much useful information can be gleaned from such examining a loop.

The most promising source for understanding how people's natural or existing traits can affect the responses of the environment lies in the examination of the traits with which people are born, most notably physical appearance. Much the same way people's personality affects how others treat those people, so too does appearance. In some sense, certain elements of appearance (such as hygiene and selection of clothes) are also functions of personality, but for the most part, physical appearance, as something one inherits genetically, is independent of personality. Because of this, it can be said that physical appearance affects the environment that in turn affects personality.

Much information already exists on such topics as how physical appearance affects happiness, self-esteem, and success. It is only the next logical step to examine how appearance governs the environment in which people are immersed in by affecting the opinions of others.

Essentially, a two step cause-and-effect relationship should, hypothetically, describe the interaction between appearance and environment, and in turn, environment and personality. At an early age, perhaps before age ten or so, children have begun to recognize how others react to them. Naturally, people react with certain biases to people who look one way or another. Good-looking children are treated as social superiors, because in society, stereotype dictates that popular people are good looking. Conversely, children who are deemed to be not as attractive are often treated as inferior to the other children. For example, one study found that, "If teachers expect different behavior from students of different physical attractiveness, the students . . . develop accordingly to conform to these expectations. The result is very favorable for those students of higher physical attractiveness but very unfavorable for those lower in physical attractiveness" (Patzer, 1985, p. 57). In both possible cases, the children begin to conform their self-opinions to the opinions of those who interact with them, and eventually will even change the ways they dress and take care of themselves to conform to others' preconceived notions of them. Once personality finally conforms to others' notions as well, the cycle repeats indefinitely, with personality and outward appearance conforming to opinions, opinions being formed by personality and appearance. This situation clearly demonstrates a case in which environment affects people, but in which environment is heavily influenced by nature.

Support for the Theory

Support for such a theory can come from a variety of sources. One obvious means of support for this theory comes from common sense and logic. Other more concrete methods that can give support for such a hypothesis are existing literature and studies, and further experimentation. In fact, much data and analysis already exist on the topic of correlates between appearance and various measures of success, such as happiness and self-esteem (Kleinke, 1978). In addition to this, it is easy to conceive of ways in which this hypothesis could be tested and falsified.

Existing Research

Much of the support for this hypothesis lies in more than one step, as does the hypothesis itself. This involves first examining literature that correlates appearance to the opinions of others. Then, logically, it must be shown how the opinions of others affect self-esteem. Lastly, it is necessary to see how self-esteem and perceived views of the opinions of others affect personality.

How appearance affects others' opinions. Recent studies have shown that at a very early age, children began to pick whom they would like for playmates by such standards as facial attractiveness and body form (Fisher, 1986). Another study found that across several age groups subjects consistently ranked photographs of numerous people based on attractiveness with similar results (Ellis & Young, 1989).

The correlation between the opinions of others and self-esteem is somewhat more difficult to find documented evidence concerning. One study found that when subjects went through an approximately 20-minute long interview with an interviewer that they believed had a low opinion of them, their self-esteem was markedly lower after the interview (Eckert & Wicklund, 1992). As shown before, poor physical appearance leads to a lowered opinion by others, which, logically, leads to lower popularity, and, "Lack of popularity may undermine self-esteem and self-confidence" (Zuckerman, 1991, p. 220).

The relationship of self-opinion to personality has been recorded through many experiments. In one experiment, males had their self-esteem intentionally raised or lowered by receiving false reports on a personality test. The males whose self-esteem was intentionally lowered interpreted a positive evaluation from a female as affection more often than those with the higher self-esteem did. Experimenters interpreted this result by postulating that those people with lower self-esteem are more likely to cling to any positive stimulus, whether real or perceived (Kleinke, 1978). This interpretation makes it easy to see why people with lower self-esteem are more likely to embrace things like drugs (which give a temporary and false positive stimulus) (Ewen, 1998).

It has also been found that low self-esteem tends to perpetuate itself, and eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One experiment found that when, unbeknownst to the participants, a task in which success was guaranteed was performed, those with lower self-esteem were so uncomfortable with their successful results that they intentionally failed the task in successive trials to avoid discomfort (Kleinke, 1978). Obviously, there is a strong correlation between self-esteem and personality.

Possible Experiments for Further Support

To adequately support the proposed relationship, it would be much more convenient to directly correlate the effects of appearance on environment, and in turn, environment on personality. None of the surveyed experiments were conducted with this express purpose. Essentially, the proposed experiment would involve manipulation of people's perceived responses from others, and then analysis of how their personality changes.

Several means exist for measuring personality. For the sake of comprehensiveness, utilizing both questionnaires and surveys of others who have objectively observed the participants for personality traits. Then, some sort of setting should be arranged where the participants are intentionally made to look bad (dressed in clothes that fit poorly or are dirty, have their hair messed up, or, for women, forced to remove their make-up). The subjects would then be introduced to a group of objective participants in a social situation. Experimenters would record the reactions of these objective participants. During and after this experience, experimenters would also monitor the personalities of the participants, and see how they change. Conversely, this experiment could also be performed where the participants are given some sort of makeover and made to look very favorably.

Presumably, the participants' personalities would be altered to fulfill the roles they perceive the participants in the social group expect them to fill. Naturally, the social group participants would perceive the subjects in a certain light, depending upon which version of the experiment is being performed, and would likely respond accordingly. This type of experiment could very easily show that attractiveness does indeed play a major role in development of personality, and that nature, both mental and physical, plays an extremely important role in the development of personality because, ultimately, "nature" determines "nurture."


Certainly, how people are brought up and the environment in which they are constantly immersed affects their personality immensely. However, one of the greatest determining factors of how people's environment acts is those people themselves. People influence their environment by characteristics they naturally possess, beginning at a very young age. Perhaps the most influential and easily discernable factor that influences environment is physical appearance. This argument demonstrates that natural characteristics are ultimately the greatest determinant of personality, whether or not inherently linked to personality. Under this premise, those characteristics that most heavily influence environment would also indirectly determine personality. If supported sufficiently with experimental data, it seems this would tip the scales in the nature-nurture debate heavily towards the side of nature.

Peer Commentary

Is Physical Appearance Really the Most Influential Factor on the Environment?

Nathan Jones
Northwestern University

In his article, Popkins breaks down aspects of the struggle between nature and nurture. He contends that one of the largest factors in shaping a person's environment is the person himself. Further, the most important example of this is one's personal appearance. Appearance affects both the way we look at other people and the way we look at ourselves. Through a series of steps, the author reveals the support for his hypothesis. He states that appearance affects others opinions, which in turn influences how we view ourselves, which in turn has effects on our personality. Popkins provides proof through each step of this process, and then finally presents a way we can splice these middle steps. Through simple tests, he believes we can show a direct link between the physical appearance of a person and his or her personality. Not only does Popkins present an interesting theory to be studied, he also provides an interesting study to go about doing this. However, that is not to say that either of these is without flaw. Although Popkins is strong in presenting his argument, his essay's shortcomings are found in both his argument and his proposed research.

In order to put faith in Popkins' multi-stepped hypothesis, it is necessary to believe the author every step of the way. Only by doing this can the reader follow the author and come to the same conclusion as he does. However, this is not always possible because the points Popkins makes on each level are questionable. Saying that physical appearance is the greatest source for effects caused by existing traits is difficult to establish. There are several other enormous factors besides the genetic inheritance of physical appearance that cannot be ignored. Popkins brushes aside the elements such as "hygiene and the selection of clothes." These cannot be avoided, for they ultimately play a large part in people's perceptions. This is especially true in elementary school and middle school, each being times in which the kind of shoes a kid has and the quality of dress become immensely important. Both hygiene and clothing are based ultimately upon the personality of someone, and they therefore disrupt the cause and effect relationship of appearance and personality that the author sets up.

It would also make sense that other traits and natural occurrences would throw off Popkins' statement as well. For example, how would personality be changed through the process of puberty? A time such as this reshuffles the scales of popularity and adds new factors to the mix, such as athleticism and academic success. Another large factor is the temperament of a child. This seems like it would have a large influence on the way people form opinions of a child. I do not think that Popkins is wrong in saying that physical attraction plays a role, but he may be stretching things by taking the next step and saying that it is the most influential factor.

His next step in the hypothesis, how others' opinions affect self-esteem, is somewhat hazy. The correlation makes sense logically, but the evidence the author uses is hard to understand. The connections he makes and the evidence he uses are not strong enough for the reader to take them as truth. Instead of criticizing what is said, we can only take his word on it. The final step after this one (how self-opinion leads to personality effects) is clear and believable, but the process of getting to this step and looking over the previous problems is difficult.

The author's proposed test to directly correlate attractiveness and personality could not be plausibly administered. I find it hard to believe that a simple change in appearance could make noticeable personality changes in such a short time. The responses one has to other people's opinions would only create a change over time. This change would be hard to capture in the proposed setting. Also, it would be hard to get participants to go along with the experiment. Intentionally dressed participants would have a definite sense of what was actually taking place. With this knowledge, the results for which the experimenter would be looking would be tainted, and perhaps even reversed.

Popkins sheds light on an interesting topic that seems to hold validity. In presenting his arguments for the hypothesis, however, he is not completely convincing. He is able to prove that that physical attractiveness does indeed play a role in shaping a personality, but his assertion that this is the most influential factor that influences environment is not so easily accepted. This flaw does not shatter his argument, but it does indeed bring questions to the issue that are not answered by the author.

Peer Commentary

Physical Appearance Impacts Social Relations, Not Personality Development

Purva H. Rawal
Northwestern University

The author takes a fundamental physical reality, our appearance, and then attempts to see how this largely immutable inheritance shapes our personality development. The basis of the paper is that people react to another individual's physical appearance, thereby provoking a behavior in the individual that is a response to the initial reaction. In other words, the author hypothesizes that a self-fulfilling prophecy takes place. The circular phenomenon then affects development and socialization.

Popkins presents his hypothesis clearly and succinctly; however, he makes a few points that deserve attention. He quickly sums up the eternally controversial nature and nurture debate in a matter of a sentence. At the same time, he quantifies the effects of nature and nurture at fifty percent. This is a presumptuous statement, as the debate continues to fuel controversy in psychological circles. For example, if nature and nurture were truly each fifty percent responsible for any psychological behavior or effect then we would have to assume that in monozygotic twin studies conducted on bipolar disorder patients, the concordance rates would be hovering closely around the fifty percent mark (Bertelsen, Harvald, & Hauge, 1977). However, as has been clearly demonstrated, the concordance rates for monozygotic twins suffering from bipolar disorder range from the high sixty percent range up to eighty percent. Although the author notes that controversy continues to rage and is far from settled, he also fails to recognize that cause and effect relationships are extremely difficult to establish in psychological research. Causal factors and apparent effects are often circular and cannot be distinguished from one another. The nature-nurture debate was discussed briefly and superficially, although to the author's credit he alludes to the complexity of the issue.

One of the boldest assertions made in the paper is that in understanding existing traits, the greatest information can be found by examining the effect of one's physical appearance. It seems that perhaps a trait as fundamental as a child's temperament may be just as predictive, if not more predictive, of how people will react to the child. Also, the causal connection between popularity and attractiveness has been viewed in the sense that people assume that attractive people display qualities of popularity (e.g., outgoing, talkative, warm, funny, etc.). However, Popkins makes the reverse connection that people assume popular people are attractive. In the study conducted by Eagly and colleagues (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longe, 1991), people who are attractive were judged to be more socially competent and were attributed with tendencies to be more sociable, extraverted, and popular than their less attractive counterparts.

Research has also shown that in many situations attractive people are more socially competent than those who are less attractive (Eagly et al., 1991). This can be attributed to the fact that they are reacting to others' treatment, i.e., the self-fulfilling prophecy; however, it is clear that, as noted earlier, a causal connection cannot be definitively made in either direction. The author outlines well the foundation of the self-fulfilling prophecy in behavior and the bidirectionality of the relationship between personality development and appearance. However, labeling the mechanisms would aid the reader in organizing the presented information, although this is far from crucial.

One of the most interesting findings supporting the author's hypothesis is that children respond more positively to attractive faces. A baby's preference for attractive people is established within the first three to six months of life, as demonstrated in a study conducted by Langlois, Ritter, Roggman, and Vaughn (1991). The infants look longer at attractive than at unattractive faces. At about one year, they take a more active approach in that they show more positive response to attractive than to unattractive people. The built-in human predisposition to attractiveness is an interesting topic with important ramifications for the way people react to one another, and is worthy of further investigation.

In order for the experiment designed by the author to be successful, the purpose of the experiment should not be disclosed to the participants as this may adversely affect the results. The author contends that in order to make women intentionally look bad in the study, the women could remove their make-up. As a female, I found this statement mildly offensive and other readers could possibly misconstrue it as well. Many women do not wear make-up and the implication that they would not look as nice if they did not or that they would be mortified to be seen without it is insulting to many women struggling to succeed in a gender-biased society. I am sure this was not the author's intent, but as scholars and writers, we have a responsibility to be aware of the possible construal or implications our words carry.

Peer Commentary

Physical Appearance Is Related to Personality

Elizabeth A. Reite
Northwestern University

Popkins intends to determine the extent to which people's nature influences their environment by looking at how physical appearance influences environment. He proposes this as a cause-and-effect relationship that should explain the development of personalities. He suggests that the most promising results should come from studying relationships between physical appearance and others' opinions, self-opinion, and self-esteem.

From the start, Popkins asserts that much of appearance is genetically determined and therefore independent of personality. Thus, he believes that physical appearance affects environment which affects personality. This is where I begin to question his argument. How has he determined that appearance is unrelated to personality? As I see it, there are many personality traits that lead to changes in physical appearance.

Take for example long distance runners, weight-lifters, gymnasts, or wrestlers. They are dedicated to their athleticism and have a dedication to their sport and their body. As part of their high work ethic and training, they test their limits and attempt to lose or gain the weight to fit a specific requirement. It is not their appearance affecting environment affecting personality, but rather a relationship in the opposite direction.

I also disagree with his hypothesis that children will conform to others' opinions by changing their dress and look to fit this expectation. This seems to ignore two common phenomena among teenagers. Many children who may have been labeled "ugly" by classmates try to overcome their title by wearing "cool" or "popular" clothes in attempt to fit in or even raise their status. Other teenagers rebel against their peers, purposely looking "bad" or "different" in order to gain attention for their new look.

Additionally, I do not follow Popkins' use of the Kleinke (1978) results. According to his interpretation, Kleinke was able to lower or raise a male's self-esteem simply by giving false reports on a personality test. How does hearing about one's personality affect one's self-esteem? How does one know whether one has made someone more or less confident based on how one describes someone's personality to him or her? This question leads to the problems in Popkins' proposed experimental procedure.

Popkins contends that his design will demonstrate that attractiveness is a main contributor in the development of personality. Unfortunately, I fail to believe that his proposal will fulfill proper scientific procedure. The experimenter would need to pre-screen participants' pre-existing self-consciousness and self-opinion to determine how various people will react to being made to look bad. Reactions will vary according to how aware participants are of their appearance, their concern over looking "good," and how they think of themselves. Due to the large numbers of conditions, this experiment would require huge numbers of participants to fill all the groups.

I am not sure that making this experiment a "social situation" has scientific validity. I find it hard to believe that experimenters would be objective while monitoring personalities and recording reactions of participants. The participants themselves would not act normally in such a contrived "social situation" and may serve more as actors or actresses playing the role of the "ugly" or "dirty" character. Although Popkins' idea is an interesting one, it will certainly not "tip the scale" in the ongoing nature versus nurture debate. Perhaps one way to determine the effect of appearance on personality would be to look at naturally (and unnaturally) occurring changes in appearance. It would be interesting to compare personality measurements both before and after a major change such as injury or illness and even plastic surgery. Although there are still problems with confounding variables in this design, it would provide some enlightenment into the role of appearance in personality development.

Author Response

Experiments and the Question of the Chicken or the Egg

Nathan C. Popkins
Northwestern University

The two main concerns about this paper seemed to surround the proposed experiment to test the hypothesis, and what the true cause and effect relationship of personality and appearance really is. Through the responses to the paper, I have been forced to reevaluate the proposed experiment somewhat. I still contend, however, that the cause and effect relationship is that which is proposed in the paper.

Both Reite and Rawal found significant problems with the proposed procedure for testing the hypothesis that physical appearance is an extremely important factor in determining one's personality (if not the most important). Rawal astutely points out that forcing a woman to remove her make-up is not a legitimate way to alter a woman's appearance in a negative way. First of all, on a personal level, let me apologize to anyone who has read this paper and found this suggestion somewhat offensive. Many women do, as Rawal points out, look "better" without any make-up at all. Second, on an academic level, for this proposed removal of make-up to be effective, experimenters would need to know the opinions of every given woman in the testing group on her personal appearance with and without make-up. Certainly, I believe, some women would be averse to the proposal of publicly removing their make-up, whereas many others (if they normally wear make-up at all) would have no problem at all with this. Either way, this would certainly open a wide door for flaws in the experiment.

Reite points to some even more general problems with the experiment. She points to several potential problems concerning the accuracy of data and other reasons already mentioned. I agree that many of these are large (though not necessarily insurmountable) problems. I do, however, rather like her suggestion of analyzing the personalities of people who have through some sort of major physical change (though in the case of some sort of disfiguring act of God, such as burns, etc., it would be difficult to get an accurate, observed record of this person's personality before the accident). I believe this experiment is similar to the that proposed in the paper, although analyses similar to those proposed by Reite would be a far superior to that which was proposed in the paper.

The second major concern the responders have is that they are hesitant to accept the proposed cause and effect relationship. Jones, Rawal, and Reite all express doubt about this causal relationship, and all give reasons, specifying why they do not put much faith in the physical appearance argument.

Jones states that one of the main reasons for his doubt is that I ignore factors such as hygiene and clothing. This, however, is not a detractor from the theory. In fact, with a bit of explanation, these factors fall right into place. Basically, hygiene and clothing selection are functions of one's self image. According to this theory, self image is a function of one's physical appearance (or, rather, responses one gets from others, which are essentially the function of physical appearance). Through this process (appearance => opinions => self-image => hygiene, selection of clothes) it can be seen how the clothes one wears and how well one chooses to maintain oneself are ultimately functions of physical appearance.

Rawal also questions the causal relationship of appearance and personality. First of all, Rawal states that I makes the assertion that popular people are attractive. What I am actually saying is somewhat the inverse. Attractive people are popular. Attractive people would, by this theory, develop more "desirable" personalities, and with the combination of a good personality and good looks, would most likely be more popular than those not possessing such traits.

Reite also questions how people such as wrestlers and weightlifters are not examples of personality affecting physique, rather than the opposite. My answer is this: Such athletes are born with a physique that facilitates their extraordinary skill in their given sport. The fact that they pursue their sport to the level they do is a genetic predisposition. Physique (appearance) affects their personality to the extent that their personality is a function of their dedication to their sport.


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