Health, Good Looks and Avocado Toast

Nov. 11, 2020

Attractiveness is good for food as well as people.

In college, instead of studying something that would help me make money, I took several psychology courses. That familiarized me with a lot of experiments, several of which had to do with the effect of physical attractiveness on psychological impressions.

Spoiler alert: Attractiveness is good.

I especially remember one experiment that showed subjects pictures of both attractive and unattractive people. They were then asked to rate the people in the pictures, based on identical narratives, for desirable qualities that have nothing to do with looks, like courage and intelligence. As you might guess, the hotties were judged smarter and braver than the uggos.

This experiment and others came to mind when I came across an article describing a study that is about to be published in the Journal of Marketing. The study, by a researcher at the University of Southern California, determined how the perceived attractiveness of food affected judgment as to how healthy it is.

The researcher did experiments that sound a little like the one described above, but with food instead of people. One involved showing subjects pictures of avocado toast that made it either look good or not so good.

“Despite identical information about the food, respondents rated the avocado toast as overall healthier (e.g., healthier, more nutritious, fewer calories) and more natural (e.g., purer, less processed) if they saw the pretty version compared to the ugly version,” a summary of the study says. This effect was consistent across multiple foods.

There is an interesting wrinkle here. Not just any kind of food styling will induce this kind of halo effect. The attractiveness has to be what the article summary calls “‘classical’ aesthetics” and describes as features that are common in nature, like symmetry, order and pattern. This produces a link to nature in the observer’s mind, and it’s a small step from “natural” to “healthy.” But that doesn’t work when the attractiveness is imparted by obviously artificial means, such as cutting the food into novel shapes.

I remember another psychological experiment that may apply here. Similar to the first one, it involved showing subjects photos of attractive and unattractive people (just women this time) and asking them to rate them according to a narrative. In this case, the women depicted were supposedly guilty of a crime, and the subjects were asked to determine their sentence.

What’s interesting is that the influence of the pictured women’s attractiveness differed according to the supposed offense. If it was a crime where good looks would be no help, like burglary, then the good-looking women caught significant breaks from the “judges.” But if the crime was based on looks, such as bilking a rich man with a false promise of marriage, the good-looking ones got slammed.

So I guess the moral here is: Make your food look good if you want it to be perceived as healthy; just don’t get caught doing it.