Downside to disaster relief: Why do photos of attractive children backfire?

Jun 25, 2014

When it comes to asking a stranger for help, being young, pretty, and the opposite sex greatly improve your odds. But when it comes to children suffering from the likes of natural disaster, poverty, or homelessness, a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research reveals that less attractive children receive more help than their cuter counterparts.

"Many charitable organizations use in advertising and promotional materials. Our research examines how the of the children in these campaigns affects the empathy and help received from adults," write authors Robert J. Fisher and Yu Ma (both University of Alberta).

In a series of four experiments, participants were asked to visit fictional websites where they were asked to consider sponsoring a child from a developing country. The authors then systematically varied the levels of attractiveness of the children featured on the websites as well as their levels of need.

Results showed that when the children were portrayed as having a severe need (for example, orphaned as a result of a natural disaster), their facial attractiveness had no affect on helping responses. In contrast, when their need was not severe, participants felt less compassion and sympathy for an attractive child compared to an unattractive child in an identical circumstance.

The authors explain that this negative effect of attractiveness occurred because participants inferred that the attractive children were more popular, intelligent, and helpful than their less attractive peers. They also observed this negative effect despite the fact that the children in the studies were obviously too young to care for themselves.

These results offer practical implications for how children are portrayed by disaster relief agencies, children's hospitals, and other charities. "We believe our research offers a positive and hopeful perspective on human behavior because it suggests that when a child is in obvious need, even strangers can feel compassion and offer aid irrespective of the child's physical appearance," the authors conclude.

Explore further: Pleasant smells increase facial attractiveness

More information: Robert J. Fisher and Yu Ma. "The Price of Being Beautiful: Negative Effects of Attractiveness on Empathy for Children in Need." Journal of Consumer Research: August 2014.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Attractive adults gain the trust of children

Oct 28, 2013

An adult with an attractive face is more likely to gain the trust of children, new research has found. Published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, the study revealed both boys and girls are more prone to bel ...

Pleasant smells increase facial attractiveness

May 29, 2014

New research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center reveals that women's faces are rated as more attractive in the presence of pleasant odors. In contrast, odor pleasantness had less effect on the evaluation ...

Recommended for you

Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

Dec 18, 2014

Analysis of the results of a large-scale survey reveals the extent of truancy in English secondary schools and sheds light on the mental health of the country's teens.

Fewer lectures, more group work

Dec 18, 2014

Professor Cees van der Vleuten from Maastricht University is a Visiting Professor at Wits University who believes that learning should be student centred.

How to teach all students to think critically

Dec 18, 2014

All first year students at the University of Technology Sydney could soon be required to take a compulsory maths course in an attempt to give them some numerical thinking skills. ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.