Are people with facial blemishes discriminated against in the job market? A new study says yes. In mock job interview settings, interviewers were distracted and recalled less information when speaking to candidates with prominent scars or birthmarks—and these candidates were more likely to receive lower evaluations as a result. Dermatologists and plastic surgeons have got to secretly love hearing about results like these.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, was conducted by Rice University Professor of Psychology Mikki Hebl and a colleague from the University of Houston, Juan Madera.
Two studies took place. The first tracked eye activity. Undergrad volunteers watched a computer-mediated interview while wearing headgear with special lenses featuring infrared light tracking their pupils. Normally, when looking at another person in a conversation or job interview, people’s eyes move in a small triangular space between the eyes and mouth of the other individual. During the study, though, volunteers couldn’t help but stare more often at the facial blemishes. The weird helmet showed that volunteers’ eyes weren’t fixed on the eyes and mouth of the job candidate, as Madera explains:
“We tracked the amount of attention outside of this region and found that the more the interviewers attended to stigmatized features on the face, the less they remembered about the candidate’s interview content, and the less memory they had about the content led to decreases in ratings of the applicant.”
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What, you might wonder, do we care about a study involving undergrads? They probably have little or no experience conducting job interviews and hiring people. (They may also just be shallow.) The researcher’s second study, though, featured people with experience—people who should know better than to judge a book by its cover, or be distracted by something as superficial as a scar on the cheek.
In the study, 38 full-time managers enrolled in master’s programs—in the business school (MBAs), or the hospitality management program—conducted face-to-face mock interviews. All of the interviewers had overseen candidate evaluation processes and hired employees in the past.
Perhaps these interviewers could see beyond the facial blemishes? Nope. The experienced managers rated applicants with scars and blemishes lower than applicants with good skin; they tended to rate them even lower than the undergrads rated their scarred job candidates. Hiring managers also recalled less info about interviews with “facially stigmatized” applicants than what they could remember during interviews with the control (“nonstigmatized”) group.
Researchers chalked up the enhanced effects of scars and blemishes to the fact that the interview was conducted face to face. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how most job interviews are conducted.
Summing up the results, Hebl said:
“The bottom line is that how your face looks can significantly influence the success of an interview … There have been many studies showing that specific groups of people are discriminated against in the workplace, but this study takes it a step further, showing why it happens. The allocation of attention away from memory for the interview content explains this.”
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In other words, when you’re staring at someone’s blemishes, you’re not paying attention to what they’re saying. Consciously or not, chances are you’re judging that person negatively too.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.