Home > Decision Making, Memory > Was the Ugly Duckling Actually Ugly?

Was the Ugly Duckling Actually Ugly?

The ugly ducking, the runt of the litter, odd one out. All of these terms are names for a negative, superficial observation that are accompanied by other negative stigmas. However, as we learn in the tale of the ugly duckling, this creature undergoes a transformation to become a beautiful, elegant swan and gains acceptance into “swan society”. This tale demonstrates how a perfectly normal, kind, character is rejected from society due to one negative quality, his homely appearance. But why is this? Maybe because everyday, humans make subconscious assumptions about people around us.

Ugly Duckling Image


Another well-known illustration of this can be seen in the familiar tale of Beauty and the Beast…aside from being the Beauty, what other qualities does Belle posses to make her so great? And why is a Beast that *spoiler alert* is not so Beastly, instantaneously shunned from society. Maybe it’s because of his large, frightening appearance that leads the villagers and Belle (well…. at first) to run away in fear. I mean, let’s admit it… we’ve all definitely passed judgments about someone based on their looks or appearance before. Some might even call them snap judgments… you know, judgments or assumptions you make based on someone’s looks, a specific personality trait, or maybe even a rumor you’ve heard about him or her. You can admit it, because it is something that happens more often than you think—and this is what we call the halo effect.

Everyday, people encounter this phenomenon known as the halo effect. The halo effect is a bias in which our overall impression of a person shapes our judgment of that person’s whole character. This can include anything from their positive qualities to their general attractiveness—and everything in between. Let’s think about appearance for a second. The Ugly Duck in the Ugly Duckling suffers verbal and physical abuse from the other birds and animals on the farm because of his ugly appearance (*cough* that’s why they call him the UGLY duckling *cough, cough*). He is bullied for no reason at all except for the fact that looks different from the others. Because of his ugly appearance, the other animals deem him as vulnerable and undeserving of love solely based on his looks. But that’s just a story right? Wrong. Physical appearance, specifically how one dresses, might shape how someone might view him or her.

Let’s think back to elementary school. Do you remember how your teacher dressed every day? I sure don’t, but studies have shown that how a teacher presents herself in a classroom—basically, how she is dressed—changes students’ perceptions of how smart they think that teacher actually is. McDonald and Lili conducted a study in 2015 exploring the halo effect in children’s (ages 4 and 6) perceptions of the knowledge state of others. What they found was that children identified a formally dressed individual as more knowledgeable about information in general compared to a casually dressed one. Children were also more likely to ask for help or questions from a formally dressed individual compared to a casually dressed one. So, even at a young age and in everyday settings, children are assigning characteristics to other individuals based on that individual’s appearance. Weird right? I thought so too. To read more about the study, click here.

How about something that might apply to us more on an everyday basis… like advertising. You might not be aware of it, but those commercials broadcasting the newest and coolest item on the market have a lot to do with the halo effect. You see, a lot of companies and advertisers will pay well-known actors and actresses to promote specific products in order to increase their sales… and it actually works. See, regular people like you and me idealize people like Jennifer Anniston and Derek Jeter, so why not trust them in telling us to buy the latest Aveeno face cream or Ford Explorer? Because we perceive these famous people as more attractive and successful, we trust them in their judgments about the products they’re selling. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some evidence: Dwane conducted a study in 1999 testing to see whether brand endorsement and sponsorship affected consumer attitudes and perceptions of


products. Dwane recruited 185 participants and asked them to rate the quality and uniqueness of a certain product that was presented to them. He found that endorsement and sponsorships affected both perceived quality and uniqueness of products. So yeah, paying famous people to promote your products helps increase their sales and fool customers just like you! And the subconscious thought of knowing that Jennifer Aniston knows all of the vitamins and minerals of Aveeno face cream, and the knowing that Derek Jeter probably doesn’t drive a Ford goes right over our heads. We trust their judgment because we think that because they are great athletes or amazing actresses, they are trustworthy people.

But is this so-called “halo-effect” something that is completely out of our control? Maybe not. J.P. Forgas conducted a study in 2011 that looked at how one’s mood might affect this phenomenon. Forgas started by asking participants to write about a happy, sad, or neutral experience they had—thus inducing a specific mood on the participant. After that, he gave participants a scholarly article and a picture of the author (which was either an elderly male professor or a young female woman) and asked to rate both the article and the author. What Forgas found was that participants’ different moods altered the way they viewed and perceived the article and author. When participants were in a happier mood, they were quicker to judge both the article and the author in a more positive light. Conversely, when participants were in a sad mood, they were more likely to actually think about and process the quality of writing in the article and evaluate both the article and the author more in depth. This, my friends, is what cognitive psychologists like to call the mood-congruency effect. The mood-congruency effect is when people tend to remember information that is consistent with their particular mood. This means that people are more likely to remember happy memories when they are feeling happy and sad memories when they are feeling sad, suggesting that positive and negative moods promote item specific and relational processing, respectively. Item specific processing focuses on mental representations and helps to enhance the operation of retrieving those specific mental representations. As humans, what we choose to pay attention to is what actually gets stored in long-term memory, and how you retrieve it is how you remember it– this is known as the Encoding Specificity Principle. So basically, when you are in a happy mood, you have an easier time retrieving happy memories from your mind compared to when you are sad.

https://www.google.com/search?q=beauty+and+the+beast+ cartoon&source=lnms&tbm= isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj1zu 2o4ujTAhVIVyYKHVSDBy4Q_AU IBygC&biw=1133&bih=649#im grc=sbe4-Os8W-q4mM:

So, as legends and tales try to express, one must think twice about snap judgments and making assumptions based on physical appearance. The halo effect can cloud our ability to work, socialize and empathize with those around us. Though we may never be able to fully shed our societal instincts to judge a book by its cover, we would do well to be mindful of this subconscious bias and should endeavor to give all–regardless of physical appearance– an equal chance of leaving a lasting positive impression. Next time you make negative assumptions about an “ugly duckling,” he or she may posses the magnificent qualities of a swan or prince. Although these lessons may seem trivial and make for a “happily ever after,” recalling tales of a grotesque hero will pave way for mindfulness and increase one’s ability to empathize.


Dwane, H.D. (1999). Brand Endorsement, Popularity, and Event Sponsorship as Advertising Cues Affecting Consumer Pre-Purchase Attitudes. Journal of Advertising, 28(3), 1-12.

Forgas, J. P. (2011). She just doesn’t look like a philosopher…? Affective influences on the halo effect in impression formation. European Journal Of Social Psychology41(7), 812-817. doi:10.1002/ejsp.842

Lammers, W. J., Davis, S., Davidson, O., & Hogue, K. (2016). Impact of positive, negative, and no personality descriptors on the attractiveness halo effect. Psi Chi Journal Of Psychological Research21(1), 29-34.

McDonald, K. P., & Ma, L. (2015). Dress nicer = know more? Young children’s knowledge attribution and selective learning based on how others dress. Plos ONE10(12),

Categories: Decision Making, Memory Tags:
  1. ackelso
    May 7th, 2017 at 21:07 | #1


    You’re so right. Research has been done testing the effects of attractiveness and qualified applicants in a job search. And you are correct in thinking that less qualified applicants may be more likely to be hired if they are attractive compared to more qualified applicants who are less attractive. Twes, Stafford, & Zhu conducted a study in 2009 testing just this. Results from their study showed that attractiveness does impact employment suitability ratings across positions, especially for positions where employees interact extensively with people outside the organization. A result of this study show that the halo effect can and does play a role in job hiring whether the employer realizes it or not. Top-down processing could be a huge factor playing into this because it allows us to use past experiences to make decisions when hiring people. Because attractive people are usually seen as more successful, employers are quick to make snap judgments about job applicants and are more likely to look at attractive people in a better light.

    Citation for the article is as follows:
    Tews, M. J., Stafford, K., & Zhu, J. (2009). Beauty revisited: The impact of attractiveness, ability, and personality in the assessment of employment suitability. International Journal Of Selection And Assessment, 17(1), 92-100. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2389.2009.00454.x

  2. May 4th, 2017 at 12:31 | #2

    The halo effect has always grabbed my attention, and I loved how you used it in the context of initial social interactions. I feel as though there could be dialogue between your bias and mine (the mere-exposure effect). “Judging a book by its cover” with attractive people is something that I learned in my Social Psychology class this semester too, but I wonder if there is a connection between this “halo” and liking. Do we like these people more because of their halo? Are we more attracted to them? If so, does this halo of attractiveness, success, and good improve with increased exposure? Does the halo shine brighter with time or fade away? There are a lot of cool things going on with the Halo Effect, but I do have a lot of questions about this bias.

  3. asweiss
    April 17th, 2017 at 21:56 | #3

    The halo effect is an extremely interesting cognitive bias. I found that the research on the effects of mood and emotion on the strength and salience of the halo effect was an interesting aspect of the effect. It highlights the cognitive control that is exercised on the effects of the bias, which also emphasizes that the halo effect can be recognized and diminished to an extent. It would be interesting to perform research (unless otherwise performed) on the effects of attractiveness and qualified applicants in a job search, with the hypothesis that less qualified applicants may be more likely to be hired if they are attractive compared to more qualified applicants who are less attractive, based on research performed on the halo effect. I feel that the power of the halo effect can be observed in the overall culture surrounding physical perfection in the United States, where physical beauty is oftentimes considered to be more important than other qualities such as intelligence or talent. Perhaps this is because we unknowingly associate beauty with other positive qualities, and so we assume that by enhancing our beauty, we will be seen with more positive qualities overall. It could be worthwhile to perform research involving the halo effect and false memory, perhaps looking at the ways in which participants who encounter attractive people form memories of the attractive person’s overall success, talent, or quality, and whether or not false memory is influenced by the halo effect.

You must be logged in to post a comment.