Why beautiful people date each other
If you read the headline “Zac Efron’s New Mystery Woman,” and underneath you saw a picture of a girl half-hidden by a monstrous pair of sunglasses and a gray men’s hoodie, you’d still have a pretty good sense of what the girl looked like. Not because you’d seen her before. Because you have a decent sense of how the world works. Beauty earns you certain privileges, like a 7.5 carat engagement ring from Donald Trump. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as a “beauty-status exchange.” As one New York Times article explained, “[I]t’s the classic story of an elderly polymath-billionaire who has sustained damning burns to the face who marries a swimsuit model who can’t find Paris on a map but really wants to go there, because it’s romantic.”
It’s a story for the tabloids and the movies, but among most of upper-and-middle class America, it’s actually not so common for a couple to be different amounts of good-looking. The sociologist Elizabeth McClintock, who has directed her attention to dating patterns, recently told The Atlantic that the “beauty-status exchange accords with the popular conception of romantic partner selection as a competitive market process,” but she went on to point out a flaw in past sociological research: studies, which “discovered” that many of rich Wall Street brokers had tall, blonde wives, ignored the fact that beautiful women tend to be rich, both because they receive preferential treatment in the workplace, and because the rich people give off that well-groomed, daily-yoga glow.
McClintock wrote as if we should be encouraged that the beauty-status exchange theory is a myth; that this proves we don’t marry for mercenary reasons, and that a woman’s looks are not her most important attribute. But what if this study shows dating practices to be even more rigid and calculating than before? That even in 2014, beautiful, rich people make aristocratic choices about whom they choose to date and marry?
This meritocracy of beauty characterizes dating across cultures and religions.
Of course, you’ve got to be selective about who you date. For a nice person to shy away from mean people—well, that would be understandable. If a husband-hunting Hindu wants to screen out non-Hindus, okay, that’s also a valid prerequisite. But character and religion are moral values, and beauty is an aesthetic value. These two are different in the same way that the mechanics of a good apple pie—flaky crust, thoughtful balance of sweetness and tartness—are different from the way the pie looks. We all sense that there’s a subversive nature to beauty; that sometimes very bad apple pies are outfitted in gorgeous latticework.
So why is it that—as Columbia University marketing professor Leonard Lee found in a speed-dating study—that attractive people place more weight on their date’s appearance than less attractive people? Why don’t beautiful people accept other traits—humor, kindness, or intelligence—a viable substitutes for a beautiful face?
Studies have found that intelligent people tend towards certain weaknesses. Significant ones. It’s as if they’re blinded by the splendor of their own brilliance. They lie more frequently and more believably, do more drugs, and, like the German philosopher Heidegger and his early rendezvous with Nazism, are less likely to have the common sense, "that’s crazy" response to revolutionary ideas.
Less research has been conducted on the lifestyle choices of beautiful people, but we do know that the world treats you differently if they think you’re hot, and not just by buying you drinks: by paying closer attention to you when you talk, by giving you higher commissions as a real estate agent. There’s evidence that beautiful people redefine success as social acceptance, like this study, which found high levels of conformity and self-promotion among attractive people who underwent personality tests.
Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas wrote on the way beauty seems to contain hope of happiness in his book Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. “So long as we find anything beautiful, we feel that we have not yet exhausted what [life] has to offer,” he explains.
Perhaps it’s easier for the rich and beautiful to turn this idea into a life philosophy. And, of course, to feel that life is full of promise and spiritualness when gazing across the table at a man with the facial symmetry of Ryan Reynolds.