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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.