In Defense of Makeup: Maybe She’s Born with It, Maybe It’s Fundamental Attribution Error

I love makeup. Looking at it, talking about it, putting it on, buying it, watching YouTube tutorials about it. I will rock a full glitter eye look with a messy, greasy bun and stained sweatpants.

Makeup gets a bad rap as a play thing and past time of the shallow. When I was I younger I was tomboyish and edgy, hesitant to embrace my love of all things girly. I was a fat teenager who liked books. Back then, I was desperate for others to know I was smart. Things like mascara and highlighter and eye looks aren’t intellectual; so I didn’t talk about them.

Thank goodness for getting older. In my 30’s, I care less. If you find meticulous daily makeup application solely an indication of shallowness, that’s fine. But you’re wrong. I’m here to tell you that makeup is not a mere trifle or a hallmark of the vapid. Makeup can be a tool, a weapon in the arsenal of persuasion. It can be a uniform, a mask that denotes authority.

power of makeup arsenal bag
It’s not a makeup bag, it’s an arsenal.

The Power Of Makeup

I have a lifelong habit of asking for what I want. Exacting, sometimes outrageous (hey, you gotta try) requests, delivered with a dulcet tone and a warm smile. Explanations and upgrades, discounts and attention, information and affection. I’ll ask almost anything of almost anyone. And, simply put: I get higher rates of compliance when I’m done-up.

Turns out, I’m not imagining this. Science back me up. In one study, people in formal wear convinced more passersby to stop and fill out a survey (as opposed to those who were casually dressed). When people were stopped in an airport and asked for a dime, they complied more with the neatly, rather than sloppily dressed. Another study found that waitresses with ornamentation in their hair received bigger tips than those without (another study found that waitresses wearing makeup get more tips too).

Why are we more likely to engage with and reward individuals that look more…decorated?

Ish Mom staring into camera, face full of machup
Dontcha wanna give me a dime?

What Gives?

Fundamental Attribution Error

According to Simply Psychology, fundamental attribution error “is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based explanations, for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations.”

In other words, when an individual spies my made-up face, they are more likely to think, “what an organized, put-together lady.” They attribute the state of my face to imagined, internal attributes: I must be a put-together lady with an organized morning to have a made up face.

Not exactly. People are less likely to cast their eye to the circumstances that make the look possible. Josh takes care of the boys in the morning: cooking breakfast, playing with them, getting them and himself ready. That frees my morning for working out and making up.

The Halo Effect

Another social psychological principle that explains why appearance effects compliance is the halo effect. This is the phenomenon in which attractive people are presumed by others to have more positive traits such as altruism, stability, and intelligence, than less attractive counterparts. It’s as if good looks creates an invisible halo that shines down upon the benefactor, imbuing the person with positive trait despite lack of concrete evidence.

I am putting these words in italics as their definitions are subjective. Scientists quickly realized that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; people were much more flexible in their definitions of attractive than the researchers thought. It wasn’t the difference between supermodels and us mere mortals; it was a difference between average people and dirt-encrusted faces.

Megan holding infant while applying eyeshadow
Sometimes I gotta hold a baby while I put makeup on.

Maybe She’s Born With It

When an individual sees a carefully done, made-up face, they automatically see a carefully done, made-up person. It’s not that applying make-up creates supermodeldom. It’s that the effort is apparent. Due to fundamental attribution error, people are more inclined to explain this effort with internal (“what an organized person!”), rather than situational (“they must have structured their morning in such a way to make that possible”) aspects.

The application of makeup can also help a bit in the attractive department. Let me tread very carefully here. It’s not that makeup makes one a supermodel. But-it can be used to, say, create more symmetry in the face (studies find that symmetrical faces are more pleasing to the eye). For example, I use contouring techniques to shorten the length of my jaw. I want to stress that makeup doesn’t make one hot and it’s not being hot that increases compliance.

In Defense of Makeup: Maybe She's Born with it; Maybe It's Fundamental Attribution Error


Tina Fey Knows

In the fifteenth episode of the third season of 30 Rock “The Bubble,” Liz is dating her neighbor, Dr. Drew Baird (played by Jon Hamm). At first, Dr. Drew seems perfect: a  doctor, athletic, intellectual, traveler, and extremely good looking. Except…when they’re eating and Liz chokes, Dr. Drew doesn’t know how to do the Heimlich. Dr. Drew is a renowned local tennis player (pro in college), yet Liz beats him in a game.

This is an extreme example, made funny with Fey absurdity, but its’ tenets are truthful.  This episode showcases the halo effect (and a bit of fundamental attribution error) on steroids. It’s not that all the people in Dr. Drew’s life are lying to him. They genuinely believe he is a gifted tennis instructor/doctor who speaks fluent French. But it’s only because he has an extremely symmetrical face.

My favorite part is when Liz is trying to prove the existence of The Bubble. The couple is on a date and Drew wants food the restaurant doesn’t have. Liz replies, “sounds great, but let me order it.” When the waitress approaches the table, Liz covers Drew’s face with her menu and orders. The waitress replies that if Liz orders off the menu again, she’ll come to bodily harm. When Liz lowers the menu from Drew’s face, he looks around in confusion: “What was that? Why didn’t she call you ‘sweetheart?'”

This line so perfectly encapsulates  what the everyday, unconscious applications of fundamental attribution error and the halo effect can do. Drew didn’t even notice that she’d ordered off the menu. Probably because that was something that he’d done before with no problem. Though he heard the waitress threaten to kill Liz, he was still surprised she hadn’t been bestowed an affectionate nickname. Drew was very, very used to being bestowed with affectionate nicknames.

megan wearing makeup in the car
Can’t take credit for the hair. Thanks Jessi at Hello Beautiful Salon!

The More We Know

When we’re more aware of fundamental attribution error and the halo effect we’re more able to observe their effects in others. And ourselves.

Do you remember those young men who would hang outside Wal-Mart selling magazine subscriptions? They were invariably pleasing to the eye: nice button down shirt, well groomed, smelling of cologne.

I was such a sucker for those guys. They only got a subscription out of me once, but I’d waste fifteen minutes telling them “no.” These days I’m a bit smarter. He’d get one polite refusal from me and then I’d be gone. I wouldn’t worry about what the nice young man thought. Now I know that I have no idea if he’s nice or not. He’s just a pleasant looking person with an agenda.

Fundamental Attribution Error and The Halo Effect IRL

Again: I’m not saying throwing on highlighter makes us supermodels and will get us everything we want.

I am saying that if you have a Big Ask coming up: business dealings, negotiations, or the like, prepare on both mental and physical fronts. Do your research, make your face look more symmetrical, your eyes brighter (more engaging), and kick some ass.

There are ways to tweak appearance to visually communicate values of organization and effort. Makeup is one of them.

Megan with a face full of makeup
I didn’t even leave the house that day. My cat was more compliant than usual?

What are your thoughts on fundamental attribution error and the halo effect? Let me know in the comments below! Share this article. Let’s see what kind of response it gets.

Happy grooming!


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Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.

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