Could Wearing Makeup Make You Better at Everything?

When I tell a “serious-minded” person about my business, there’s an automatic assumption – often stated – that my job involves making stupid people look even more stupid. This attitude is so ingrained that I even wonder myself – does partaking in cosmetic frivolity make us stupid?

But reading into a study on cosmetic enhancement and social perception, there is a distinct possibility that the exact opposite may be true. If so…

  • Could wearing makeup could make you smarter?
  • Could wearing makeup could make you better at your job?
  • Could wearing makeup make you better at everything?

Those would be bold claims! But maybe it’s true. Let’s look at the study first.

The Perception of Color and Visual Esthetics (or Per-CVE) Study was undertaken by Dr. Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry (and author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
. Proctor & Gamble’s Beauty and Grooming research arm was funding the project, noting that while studies had been done on the contrast between male and female faces on perception, none had been done on female faces with “extended phenotype” – which is officially a term for “external factors that can change appearance”, and unofficially a term for grooming and cosmetics.

For the study, 25 women had three makeup looks applied by a makeup artist. Each look was designed to increase the contrast of their facial features. One look was “natural makeup”, one was “professional makeup”, and the third was “glamorous makeup”. The women were photographed with these three looks and without makeup under uniform lighting. Then two separate groups of volunteers (male and female, different ages and ethnicities) were shown the womens’ faces at random, and asked to rate them on attractiveness, likeability, trustworthiness and competence. One of these groups saw the faces for a very brief time, and the other was allowed to look at each face as long as he or she desired.

Here are a few of the faces:

The result? As you would expect, the volunteers rated the made up faces as more attractive. But they also rated them as more competent, likeable, and trustworthy! This effect varied depending on whether viewers were shown the faces only briefly, or had unlimited viewing time. When allowed to look at faces for an extended time, viewers rated the “glamorous” look as less trustworthy and likeable, but still more competent than the no makeup look.

Now, reading further into the study, one might think that the difference isn’t so great, and the study is funded by a cosmetics company, so it’s all smoke and mirrors, or some conspiracy to get us to buy more stuff. But there’s another factor to think of, one that’s not talked about much in makeup ads, but that affects us all:

That concept is accumulated advantage.

Also know as the Matthew Effect, accumulated advantage is a concept that’s expanded on in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. It’s a concept that small advantages can add up, and in the arena of personal appearance, a slightly more favorable impression on people, over time, could add up to  big favors in the long run. And not just in the Pretty People Contest – if wearing a bit of makeup makes you seem more competent, people will not only trust you that little bit more, they will often give you more benefit when you do make mistakes.

This is obvious to people who work in sales – they know that when meeting a lot of people, it’s best not to look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. But what about the rest of us? If we work with the same people day in and day out, does it matter? Well, maybe – or maybe they already know very well how competent and likeable we are. But how many new people do we meet? How many people will we meet over our adult lives? If they think we’re more competent, how many more opportunities do we get? As we get those opportunities, how many more things will we learn – and master? And how could this series of advantages add up?

I’m not saying that every woman who doesn’t currently wear makeup has to run out right now and convert. But the study does suggest that, even with the intellectual bias that runs deep against makeup, what people like to say about women wearing makeup is quite different from how they react to an appropriately enhanced face. And amongst all the advantages that add up, this is one that we can consciously take and control, starting whenever we want. So next time I’m running out to meet people – even people who would say they dislike makeup – I’ll think twice before skipping the eyeliner.

Share this

My Writing

Beautiful People: Jane Iredale

Working as a makeup artist, I'm familiar with the extremes of what can be put on a face. Plastic glitter, sequins, acrylic paint, theatrical...

Beauty Inventions: The Eyelash Curler

The modern eyelash curler is iconic - and for those of us in the beauty business, it's indispensable. It seems simple enough, but the...

Vintage Makeup Workshop with Gabriela Hernandez, Creator of Bésame Cosmetics

There's a lot to love about Old Hollywood movies: the dialogue is fantastic, the sound effects are minimal, and the stars aren't likely to...

My Makeup

more to enjoy