Dr Nancy Etcoff is an American psychologist and an expert in brain and cognitive sciences. She has just published a new book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, in the States (available here later this year), a lengthy tome with 60 pages of references and bibliography, which must be just about the last word on good looks. To the vast majority who look nothing like Cindy Crawford or Tom Cruise, the conclusions are depressing: beauty is one of the most powerful assets anyone can have, from birth onwards. One American study even showed that mothers with less attractive babies were less attentive to their children. "They were not neglectful, but they seemed more reserved in their affection and a little less swept off their feet," comments Dr Etcoff.
An uncute baby ought to get used to such setbacks early on, because there's more of the same to come. Good-looking children and students are routinely given better marks by teachers. One grim piece of research found that children in care were disproportionately likely to be unattractive. "Abused kids had head and face proportions that made them look less infantile and cute," explains Dr Etcoff. "Such children may be more likely to suffer abuse because their faces do not elicit the automatic reaction of protection and care that more infantile faces do."
As for the office environment, "lookism", according to Dr Etcoff, is "a form of discrimination in the workplace. And a silent one. No one thinks that he has been offered a lower salary because he is short! Good-looking men are more likely to get hired, at a higher salary, and to be promoted faster than unattractive men." As for what she tactfully calls "homely" women, they are even more disadvantaged: less likely to get jobs, less likely to earn a competitive salary and less likely to marry a man with resources and prospects.
All this makes unsettling reading. Dr Etcoff compares lookism to racism and sexism. But, she says, "Unlike racism and sexism, which we are conscious of, lookism operates at a largely unconscious level." We are born with lookism already programmed into us. Babies as tiny as three months old gaze significantly longer at pictures of faces that adults have already rated as attractive. "The idea that an infant would be peering out at the world with the eyes of a neonate beauty judge is downright discomfiting," observes Dr Etcoff with some justification.
What these judgmental babies are homing in on is symmetry - beautiful faces are symmetrical and in proportion. Attractive figures are also in proportion and, on some primeval level, signal a potential mate who is in good health and able to reproduce. But lookism isn't simply a question of sexual
attraction: men rate men and women rate women just as readily as they do the opposite sex. "We are always sizing up other people's looks: our beauty detectors never close up shop and call it a day," says Dr Etcoff. "We notice the attractiveness of each face we see as automatically as we register whether or not they look familiar. Beauty detectors scan the environment like radar: we can see a face for a fraction of a second and rate its beauty."
And if we like what we see, we automatically think we like the person behind the face. In a series of experiments, researchers proved that the good-looking find it easier to get help from others. (Imagine being one of the researchers sent out to gauge the reaction of others to ugly people: how crushing that little task must have been.)
Dr Etcoff is not the only one to acknowledge the great power of good looks. "Attractive people do have a distinct advantage," agrees Kate Fox, social anthropologist with the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. "The bias for beauty operates in all social, work and educational situations.
"Attractive children are not only more popular, but teachers have higher expectations of them, which improves performance. Good-looking people have better chances of getting jobs and higher salaries. And there is also a deep-seated if illogical conviction that what is beautiful is also good - that the good-looking must have other desirable assets."
Mary Spillane, the founder of CMB image consultants, also acknowledges the desirability of beauty. "As we close this millennium, whether we like it or not we have become part of an incredibly visual age," she says. "We form fleeting relationships, we meet people briefly and we have been programmed to make very quick judgements. We've all lived with this reality - in any group of girl friends there's one who's like a honeypot that brings the bees buzzing round."
This, she insists, with professional verve, is not as depressing as it might seem. "You can do so much with plain features!" One of her clients was a plain-looking lawyer who didn't pull in the clients. "People didn't respond to him because he wasn't good-looking. First of all he got new glasses. Then, because he had a balding head and hairy neck, he had his neck waxed. Then he changed his clothes to something more modern and professional. And because of that he started walking and talking quite differently. His inner beauty came out."
Desirable as "inner beauty" may be, the problem, of course, is precisely that it is inner. It's invisible. Most of us, given a choice between the purely superficial looks of Cindy Crawford or the more deepseated virtue that was Mother Teresa's, would not hesitate in going for the beauty that is merely skin-deep.
"Visual beauty is probably the most important element in attraction," says psychologist Aric Sigman. "In our culture looks have been exaggerated and accentuated far beyond their natural significance. We forget other factors that we can't see, like the voice - if we are lookist, we are also soundist. Female voices can convey a phenomenal degree of attractiveness, as can body language."
Curiously, in the modelling industry, bastion of beauty, standard good looks are not necessarily an advantage. Ellis, the scout for the model agency Models 1, says that individuality is more important on the catwalk than sanitised and conventional prettiness. "A potential new star has to stand out and be striking. There has to be something about her that is appealing, something that makes me stop and turn around in the street. Perfect features are not a prerequisite, irregular features also work." Sadly, of course, this doesn't mean that everyone with a wonky nose or jug ears can find a niche on the catwalk.
As Aric Sigman points out, however, even for the distinctly un-pretty there are a few other attributes guaranteed to increase attractiveness, especially for men: "Power, authority and hard cash are immensely attractive to the bulk of the population." And, says Kate Fox, the beautiful don't have it all their own way; they get their come-uppance when their looks start to fade. "They are under great pressure to maintain their attractiveness and suffer more when it diminishes," she says. "People who have been very attractive all their lives get a great shock when things level out in their 50s and 60s." And, she says, there are other disadvantages - "though ones that most of us would be quite happy to put up with", as she wryly adds. Beauty, it seems, doesn't necessarily mean higher self-esteem.
"Self-esteem is only marginally higher, if at all. Often good-looking people don't trust other people's praise of their other talents - they believe all evaluations are affected by their looks." And, she says, the gorgeous are perceived to have certain character flaws: selfishness, lack of compassion, a propensity towards adultery and divorce.
"The averagely attractive certainly have a distinct advantage over the ugly, but extreme beauty isn't necessarily such a huge advantage in itself," she says. "Extremes can lead to jealousy and mistrust."
And, on an even more hopeful note, if you are reading this and feeling depressed, it's more than likely that you are underestimating your own attractiveness. This is especially true if you are a woman - women are more self-critical than men. "Standards of beauty are much higher for women than for men, and also much more rigid," explains Kate Fox. "One study showed that young women today see more images of outstanding women in one single day than our mothers' generation saw in their entire adolescence. Also, women are judged on their appearance more than men. So they consistently overestimate their weight and underrate how attractive they are." So if we're all prettier than we think we are, perhaps lookism isn't so depressing after all. But then again ...