In the eye of the beholder

During the summer we were fortunate enough to get a splendid photograph of our, rather good-looking 14 grandchildren. I used to show this with pride but too often I was greeted with: “They take after their grandmother, don’t they?” It was hard to see this as a personal compliment – and it left me thinking about the disadvantages of hidden, prejudicial discrimination.

We have been made very aware of the injustice of discrimination with regard to race, or gender, or age, or sexual orientation; but so far I have heard of no one attacking discrimination based on attractiveness or beauty. Yet the effects are considerable, and very well-documented. This may be because there are gradations of beauty but a more likely explanation is because the discrimination is unconscious – and all the more dangerous for that.

A typical methodology for a study will be to gather a random group of people and to ask them to rank a number of photographs by perceived attractiveness. This enables the sociologist to divide the subjects into “attractive” or “not attractive”, with subgroups in between, if required. Contrasts in the fate of the different groups can then be studied.

We would like to think that our voting decisions are made in at least a semi-rational way; so why, when the 1974 Canadian federal elections were studied, did the “attractive” candidates get two and a half times as many votes as the less attractive? Yet three quarters of the voters were adamant that looks had nothing to do with their choice. Could this be the reason why Kennedy outpointed Nixon in televised debates, but was substantially less successful in radio debates? The moment I saw Nick Clegg’s face on the debate before the General Election I knew that his star was about to rise. For good or ill, we now have a Coalition government because of this unconscious beauty quirk. And a very recent study established that good-looking politicians are typically granted more television air time.

Perhaps we can allow ourselves a little personal prejudice in politics, but none, of course, in court where – either as judge or jury – we have a sacred responsibility to make the best decision that we can. Sorry: the evidence tells us that the more attractive are less likely to be convicted; and, if convicted, less likely to go to prison. In a civil case the attractive are likely to get double the damages that would be awarded to their less well-favoured counterpart.

Beauty has a “halo effect”. So we tend to see the beautiful as more virtuous. They are more credible, they carry more authority and influence. In job selection interviews (which are notable for their unreliability) the good-lookers, male or female, have the edge.

In an interesting experiment a number of men were asked to hold 10-minute telephone conversations with women. If they were told that their allotted woman was attractive their conversational manner was friendlier, more outgoing and more sociable. And, interestingly, the women reciprocated in like manner. Of course the women were distributed randomly in terms of attractiveness. That the men should be socially forward with (allegedly) attractive women is no surprise. But the fact that women, irrespective of their looks, reciprocated as if they were attractive suggests that the world of the beautiful, male or female, is different from that of the unattractive.

Indeed, being fortunate in the acquaintance of a number of beautiful women, I have often been struck by their degree of social charm. If you are attractive you are treated well; if you are treated well you behave attractively. Incidentally, and ironically, a man’s status is raised or lowered by the woman on his arm: a woman is judged in her own terms.

And it starts early. From the age of three, children react more favourably to beautiful children. Similarly, adults tend to overlook the faults of the more beautiful child, and to decide disputes in their favour.

The most commonly cited reason for the halo of beauty is that the ordinary signs of symmetry of feature and due proportion in the body are unconsciously recognised as indicating good genes. And we are drawn strongly to mates who have good genes. This may be true but, in my experience, Francis Bacon’s view that “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” often hits the mark better.

Nor are the benefits all one way. Precisely because the truly attractive are treated differently from us common clay, they may build up an artificial dependence on what nature has given them. The rich person will often wonder to what extent wealth is the reason why people are motivated to offer friendship, so an attractive person may wonder whether they are judged for their looks rather than for themselves. Usually time will answer that question, but for some the prospect can be frightening.

And, just as we attribute qualities to the beautiful which they may not deserve, so our disillusion can be all the greater when longer acquaintance proves that they fall short of our assumptions.

Perhaps we shouldn’t complain – I don’t know how many billions are spent within the beauty industry but it keeps the money moving around and people employed. And I don’t quarrel with the results. Yet we might remember Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull, 25 years dead, and saying: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.”

Although attractiveness is not a discrimination protected by the law, it remains a moral question. Are we not obliged to avoid it in our choices? And there may be other factors which breed similar discriminations. Let’s have your ideas.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to In the eye of the beholder

  1. vmilner says:

    “The moment I saw Nick Clegg’s face on the debate before the General Election I knew that his star was about to rise. For good or ill, we now have a Coalition government because of this unconscious beauty quirk.”

    Really? Remember he won 5 less seats than Charles Kennedy…

  2. Ion Zone says:

    What about disabilities?
    .
    It is seen as quite alright, if not expected, that babies with Downs (who are not considered to be ‘lookers’ in any case) are aborted as soon as they are diagnosed in the womb.
    .

    .
    It has been remarked upon by the papers that we don’t treat the disabled as we do other minorities, even though we, supposedly, have equal placing in law as blacks and gays.
    .
    Indeed, Downs and autistics (for whom there will be a pregnancy test within twenty years or less) are some of our greatest achievers. Name a genius, and the chances are they were, at least partly, autistic. I’m not making this up, aspergers is linked to genius.
    .
    However, that won’t stop them aborting every one of us they can….if you want to find eugenics in England, look no further.
    .
    .
    .

  3. Ion Zone says:

    I am curently writing a blog article about this and will post it within a few days.

  4. tim says:

    Fascinating. So, for the autistic, ‘differently abled’ is an exact description, rather than a politically correct euphemism?

  5. Ion Zone says:

    Oh yes. Very much so. If you want something incredible done, ask someone with a mental disability, especially Downs or Autism. That woman in America who designs less-cruel slaughterhouses is a famous example, but Albert Einstein and Hans Christian Anderson are two examples you’ll know of autism equalling genius (Though, of course, they were posthumously diagnosed).
    .
    It’s to the degree that scientists are actually trying to replicate the effects of autism in normal brains to increase their capabilities.
    .
    One theory of autistic traits is that the brain turns inward due to being ‘hyperconected’.
    .
    http://autism.lovetoknow.com/Famous_Autistic_People
    .
    .
    Wiki also lists:
    .
    * Writers – Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, Bruce Chatwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Jonathan Swift and William Butler Yeats.
    * Philosophers – A.J. Ayer, Baruch de Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Simone Weil, and Ludwig Wittgenstein
    * Musicians – Bela Bartok, Ludwig van Beethoven, Glenn Gould, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Erik Satie.
    * Artists – Vincent van Gogh, L.S. Lowry, Jack B. Yeats and Andy Warhol.

  6. Ion Zone says:

    .
    Sorry, that sounded a bit ‘braggy’, but we don’t usually get to brag much. 😉

  7. Iona says:

    Quentin, in your “Eye of the beholder” article you mention in passing that the physical qualities we judge as “attractive” may posibly constitute a guide to “good genes”, – but you don’t seem to set much store by this as a “reason” why we find certain physical characteristics attractive.
    Many years ago I was marginally involved in an investigation of facial characteristics which are or are not judged attractive. The investigator (probably a Ph.D. student – I don’t remember – I was an undergraduate at the time) took full-face portrait photographs of 20 people (20 men or 20 women – not mixed), all superimposed on one another, lined up around the eyes. The result was a slightly out-of-focus picture of a face which was invariably judged to be attractive. The theory was that this out-of-focus face was an “average”, with all individual variations of proportion cancelled out, and that the “average” face is judged more attractive than faces with individual quirks such as a longer-than average or shorter-than-average nose, large or small mouth, etc. A non-standard face might well go with slightly quirky genes, which could be a bit of a reproductive risk. At any rate, I don’t think it can be assumed that there is no such link.

    Also, consider height. I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I’m sure it has been demonstrated that people have greater regard for the taller-than-average (presumably, with some upper limit beyond which extreme height is off-putting) than for the shorter-than average. It has also been demonstrated that there is a correlation – certainly not a perfect one, but some correlation – between height and IQ, such that taller people tend to score higher in IQ tests. Again, this tends to suggest that some prized physical characteristics go with evolutionarily useful ones.

  8. Ion Zone says:

    That’s called a ‘stereotype’, acording to my Photography tutor. They used to use them to show that all people of a certain ‘type’ were the same, such as taxi drivers and black people, to name two famous ones.
    .
    Incidentally, I.Q. is entirly subjective!

  9. Iona, I’m sure you are generally right. It’s interesting to Google: height IQ correlation. You get a good idea from this about the sort of studies which are done; and how careful the interpretation needs to be. IQ measurement always opens a can of worms as everyone has a theory on it.
    Actually I could have used the advantages of being tall instead of attractiveness in my piece, It’s just as well evidenced, and measurement of height is objective.

  10. st.joseph says:

    If IQ is on height-mine would not be very high being 5ft2inchs.
    A friend was told many years ago to abort her baby as she caught german measels-she refused and prayed very hard. He is deputy Head in a Catholic school with perfect eyesight. Thank God.
    Like Quentin I have good looking children and grandchildren.They would not be loved any less if they were not.whenas a teenager and meeting boys, I would only meet someone if he was good looking(how vain is that) I thought if I had children I would like to have a husband who had good looks like Cliff Richards lo and behold my husband resembled him. But I didn’t just marry him for his looks.That would have been discrimanation.
    But I did have other objection like most people I suppose. Sweaty hands and bad breath put me off!
    And bad language!
    It is difficult to analyse falling in love in a way as what does really matter.
    My husband went to grammer school and knew ‘big
    words’ how imature is that.But I was only 17.
    He used to tell people after we married that he knew the night he met me at a dance, thatI was the one he would marry and it was love at first sight(so my religion didn’t put him off)
    I wouldn’t call my feelings discrimination-just fussy.

  11. Iona says:

    St. Joseph, what I meant by saying “the correlation between IQ and height is not a perfect one” is exactly what you pin-pointed with your comment about your height and IQ. There is a tendency for taller people to gain higher scores on IQ tests, but this says nothing whatever about individuals.

    IQ measurement may open a can of worms but at least we know what we mean by it (score on a specifiable IQ test on a given date) whereas if we’re rash enough to start talking about “intelligence” we may all be talking at cross-purposes since we may well have different ideas about what constitutes intelligence.

  12. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Iona, but my comment was said with a bit of ‘tongue in cheek’and not meant for a serious test of intelligence!

  13. Ion Zone says:

    IQ is entirely subjective and is not a good indicator of actual intelligence.

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