Body Mass Index and Physical Attractiveness: Evidence From a Combination Image-Alteration/List Experiment

Conley, D. and B. McCabe.
Sociological Methods and Research, 40: 6-31

The list experiment is used to detect latent beliefs when researchers suspect a substantial degree of social desirability bias from respondents. This methodology has been used in areas ranging from racial attitudes to political preferences. Meanwhile, social psychologists interested in the salience of physical attributes to social behavior have provided respondents with experimentally altered photographs to test the influence of particular visual cues or traits on social evaluations. This experimental research has examined the effect of skin blemishes, hairlessness, and particular racial attributes on respondents’ evaluation of these photographs. While this approach isolates variation in particular visual characteristics from other visual aspects that tend to covary with the traits in question, it fails to adequately deal with social desirability bias. This shortcoming is particularly important when concerned with potentially charged visual cues, such as body mass index (BMI). The present article describes a novel experiment that combines the digital alteration of photographs with the list experiment approach. When tested on a nationally representative sample of Internet respondents, results suggest that when shown photographs of women, male respondents report differences in levels of attractiveness based on the perceived BMI of the photographed confederate. Overweight individuals are less likely than their normal weight peers to report different levels of attractiveness between high-BMI and low-BMI photographs. Knowing that evaluations of attractiveness influence labor market outcomes, the findings are particularly salient in a society with rising incidence of obesity.