The attraction of attraction

How attractive are you? The question was sufficiently important for The Times to publish two articles in January and to devote a leader to the issue. It appears that good looking people are more likely to be right wing than left wing: the Tories are simply more attractive. The reason, it seems, is that attractive people tend to be more successful in life, both personally and financially. I hurried to my own research database and in no time at all I found enough references to the effects of attractiveness to write a book.

Most of us, I imagine, are under the impression that we can make good judgments of the people we meet. But it would seem that the evidence we use is not based on our knowledge and experience but, quite simply, on what we see. To put it simply, we evaluate our fellows through their appearance. And, as I have written before, those initial valuations tend to stick in our minds notwithstanding later, contrary, evidence. On public transport I am usually insignificant, but last year I went to lunch at a smart club, wearing my best bib and tucker. Ladies stood up for me on the tube. And a street seller at Hyde Park Corner addressed me as “sir”.

This is not a recent phenomenon. Some 40 years ago a Canadian federal election was studied: it turned out that “attractive” candidates got more than twice as many votes as the less attractive. Yet a majority of the voters denied that looks had been a factor in their choice. A classic example is drawn from the television and radio debates between Nixon and Kennedy. The beautiful Kennedy was the winner on television, the dour Nixon succeeded on the wireless. But voting is free – how about court cases where good judgment is of the essence? Sorry.. in criminal cases the attractive are less likely to be convicted. In civil cases they are likely to get substantially higher damages. We know that attractive people are more likely to be selected for jobs, and that they find it easier to get financial investment and to procure loans.

As we look at these attitudes we may find ourselves considering where we personally stand in the scale of attractiveness. My beard is an issue: I was once told by my seniors that this was likely to slow my business promotion. This was at a time when beards were seen as farouche. However my wife, when it first appeared, described it as “like adultery but without all the hassle”. So I kept it. Interestingly, one study claimed that beards were attractive to women, but only for brief affairs. I cannot confirm that since my affair with my wife could not be described as brief. Other women were different: some came in closer, others moved away. The distinction was marked.

Voices are another aspect of attraction. A fascinating experiment showed a crime story where viewers from different parts of the country were asked to judge whether the protagonist was guilty or not. The verdict depended largely on accent. Birmingham and Glaswegian accents fared badly. But they are not alone: foreign accents in general also attract less trust.

Accent is an important issue. Higgins, in Shaw’s Pygmalion, got it right: “It is impossible for an Englishmen to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.“ And indeed, there is a built in tendency to believe and respect upper class accents. But there may be a limit to this: an accent which is seen to be affected may lose its power to persuade. I have no study which shows the influence of accent in political voting, but I expect it to be influential. How do you react to Jacob Rees-Mogg? But many parents, recognising the potential advantage, arrange for children to have elocution lessons.

A low voice we know, on the authority of King Lear, is an excellent thing in a woman, but so it is with a man. An interesting study showed that women listening to various male voices were attracted to the low ones. They could even visualise, often incorrectly, what the man would look like. Unfortunately such men were also seen as
more likely to cheat and unsuited to longer relationships.

The abundance of studies in this area may partly be put down to the fact that they are relatively easy to conduct, and tend to be newsworthy, as The Times supposed. We need to be careful of such studies, which vary in their reliability, but, overall, they provide a useful picture. We can put down such superficial judgements to evolution which requires swift reactions to danger or opportunity to promote our survival (my computer mouse has just clattered onto the floor, and my cat has shot out of the room). But there are also many occasions when second judgment is better for us and for those we meet

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About Quentin

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

11 Responses to The attraction of attraction

  1. Nektarios says:

    Interesting topic, but the scientific methodology in assessing attraction leaves me cold, it is much more nuanced than that, surely?
    What do we make of our Lord Jesus, the writer wrote,’ there was nothing about him that we should desire Him?
    Then we read the common people heard him gladly. They were attracted to Him.What factors were present?

    They say, opposites attract, that is very clear in marriage. Sometimes I think the good Lord has a sense of humour.

    • Martha says:

      Neltarios, I thought that description of Our Lord was of His appearance during His Passion.

      • Nektarios says:

        Martha
        I it refer to that, as Isaiah 53 goes on to later describe His Passion. Biut in Isaiah 53:2 we see in growing up, and he had no seeming outward form or comeliness that we should desire Him. Yet many did – what was the attraction for these people that followed him?

  2. Nektarios says:

    In a hurry as usual Martha, making errors. I should begin….. If it refers to that,
    Second line should start with ….. But in Isaiah 53:2

  3. John Thomas says:

    Smart accents: Surely what you say, Quentin, was true in the past … but today? Today, almost all BBC presenters sport Us to rhyme with “foot” not “cut” (well, they would say “cut” to rhyme wuith “foot”, but I’m sure you know what I mean … ) Surely, Rees-Mogg’s accent is a handicap, not an aid …? My wife thinks my beard and moustache makes me look (slightly … ?) better – I think the things are a nuisance … all that prickly hair in the nose …

  4. John Nolan says:

    The BBC used to have an economics correspondent who had a broad Lancashire accent. It was difficult to take him seriously since that particular accent has comic overtones for most of us, being associated with George Formby and Gracie Fields.
    Rees-Mogg is simply a well-articulated RP-speaker. He doesn’t say ‘orf’ for ‘off’ or ‘hice’ for ‘house’, which would now sound affected.
    An ‘old sweat’ once remarked to an Australian soldier ‘In the British Army we can recognize our officers, even in the dark.’ RP does seem to convey more authority.
    Yet Lord Curzon never lost the short ‘a’ of his native Derbyshire, and Lord Denning made no attempt to lose his Hampshire burr.

  5. Iona says:

    “He grew in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men”.
    Suggests attractiveness, though I suppose not necessarily.

    • G.D says:

      Martha, he did …. Beauty (really) is in the eye of the beholder.
      Reminds me of a saying from childhood ‘Every child should own a bulldog, to teach it to love (find attractive) something ‘ugly’.

      • Martha says:

        G.D. It was Iona’s comment, but I had included that in the one I made which was lost! Also, that He spoke with authority, which attracted followers. I have known several people who initially appear very nondescript, but become much more impressive when they speak and act, and then one comes to view them very differently as you say.

  6. Nektarios says:

    Someone long ago said, ‘Be attracted to many women, but only go home to one.’

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