Attractive teens more likely to be delinquent

January 25, 2021

Young people who think they're good-looking are more likely to engage in petty crime. (AP Photo/Markus Schrieber)

Young people who perceive themselves as physically attractive are more likely to engage in criminal behavior throughout adolescence, such as painting graffiti, damaging property and shoplifting, according to a new study of teens in Ohio.

In a paper published in the Crime & Delinquency journal on Jan. 12, a team of researchers examined the relationship between self-perceptions of physical attractiveness and crime among adolescents and found that the better looking young people think they are, the more delinquent they tend to be.

Thomas Mowen, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and lead author of the paper, told The Academic Times that the findings go against the majority of past studies on attractiveness, which have largely concluded that being attractive tends to be associated with positive social outcomes.

However, much of this prior research tends to focus on others’ perceptions of attractiveness and has overlooked the relationship between a person’s beliefs about their own attractiveness and their behavior, according to the paper.

“We expected to find that, generally speaking, being less attractive or being ‘ugly’ is related to worse outcomes,” Mowen said.

As part of the current study, Mowen analyzed longitudinal data from the Adolescent Academic Context Study in Ohio, which lasted for four years and was a collaborative project between Bowling Green State University and a nearby school district. It examined adolescent development and school environment, collecting data twice per year from 783 students in grades seven through 10 between 2009 and 2013.

Participants were asked about 15 behaviors to measure general deviance, including how often they painted graffiti, damaged property, lied to their parents, shoplifted, got in a serious fight, sold drugs and more. 

Over the years of data collection, the survey also asked the students to what extent they thought they were good-looking, rated on a four-point scale of “not at all good-looking,” “not very good-looking,” “fairly good-looking” or “very good-looking.”

The overall mean for this measure was 3.175, indicating that most respondents reported being “fairly” or “very” good-looking. And boys tended to rate themselves as more attractive than girls did, which was associated with higher levels of deviance in boys than girls.

“Substantive results reveal that self-perceptions of attractiveness are highly significantly associated with increased levels of general deviance,” the authors said in the study. “Higher grade point average, bonds to teachers, maternal engagement, self-efficacy and general social support all relate to reductions in general deviance.”

The Adolescent Academic Context Study also asked participants to rate how often they felt depressive symptoms on a four-point scale. Increased depressive symptoms were related to higher levels of general deviance, and were associated with a 133% increase in the odds of drug sales, while increased self-perception of attractiveness was associated with a 68% increase in the odds of drug sales.

“Most types of crime or most types of delinquency are not committed alone, they’re committed with other people. And it could be that attractive students have bigger peer groups,” Mowen said, suggesting that those groups may in turn drive this behavior.

The research team concluded that self-perceptions of attractiveness seemed to be heavily related to all different types of delinquent behavior. Depression was also related to all forms of deviance, but the study did not find evidence that depression weakened or mediated the link between self-perceptions of attractiveness and offending behavior.

“Those who report feeling less attractive may not experience the co-occurring pressure to work to maintain this perception that more attractive youth encounter on a daily basis,” the authors said in the paper. “Perhaps attractive people recognize that they are treated and evaluated more positively than less attractive people and may fear losing this highly valued status — a fear which manifests itself in the form of strain.”

“Cast against the backdrop of a 49.2 billion-dollar-a-year beauty industry and broader societal obsessions over physical attractiveness, it is no leap to understand that individuals fear losing this highly valued status,” the authors continued.

For future research on the link between physical attractiveness, negative emotions and bad behavior, the researchers suggested a deeper exploration of the role that gender plays in this relationship. It is also important for school officials, teachers and parents to promote positive self-esteem in adolescents, reducing the value placed on attractiveness in order to decrease delinquency, they said.

The study, “Self-Perceptions of Attractiveness and Offending During Adolescence” was published in the Crime and Delinquency journal on Jan. 12. Thomas Mowen, of Bowling Green State University, was the lead author. John H. Boman, Samantha Kopf, and Margaret Z. Booth, all of Bowling Green State University, served as co-authors. 

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