Some years ago I was leading a marketing project using large newspaper advertisements soliciting eager responses from the readers. I consulted the experts, and I found that there was an established comprehensive set of rules known to achieve the best results. It covered everything from choice of words to pictures to layout. It was emphasised that the product needed a sponsor of credibility whose photograph appeared prominently. While it was preferable, if expensive, to bribe the goodwill of a well-known person it was sufficient that he or she simply appeared trustable. So how much weight do we put on appearances?
I start with a study which was published last month on the credibility of accents. It seems that we are less likely to believe an individual who has a foreign accent. Presumably we retain our credulity for those who seem to be like us. Johnnie foreigner is at least slightly suspicious. But then a second factor comes into play: if the foreigner speaks firmly and confidently our trust is restored. Interestingly, the two reactions come from different parts of the brain. But both are rooted in evolution: the first is the danger of the unknown, the second is our inbuilt respect for authority.
While our national habit of placing a speaker in his correct social group has relaxed somewhat in later generations, Professor Honey’s Does Accent Matter still has much to teach us. Older readers will recall the U and non-U fuss, popularised by Nancy Mitford in the 1950s. There was a list of vocabularies distinguishing the bourgeois from the upper classes – as in serviette opposed to napkin. A lady whom I knew well, a descendant of a pre-Conquest family, specialised in working class vocabulary, and exchanged vulgar postcards with her charlady. She warned me as a young man not to marry into the Royal Family, on the grounds that they were German upstarts. However, although I rather fancied Princess Elizabeth, the opportunity never occurred.
In another neck of the woods, appearance plays a large part in politics. There have been several studies – perhaps because they are relatively easy to do and are popular with the newspapers. The political element is important. Think of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees Mogg. While we know many facts about each of these to what extent is our judgment made through the lens of their appearances? I cannot remember a single word of Harold Wilson yet I retain a vivid picture of his face and his physical actions. His appearance drove deeper into my psyche than his values.
My trust in the objectivity of legal judgments was shaken by the account of the Israeli judges whose verdicts were influenced by how long it was since they had had a meal break. And the evidence shows that attractive people are more likely to be found not guilty, more successful in legal claims, and likely to be awarded higher damages and to pay lower damages. If you feel immune to such biases, are you ever inclined to judge individual witnesses on the television news or documentary as soon as they appear, and allow that immediate reaction to affect their credibility?
Height plays its part. I grieve because I am not tall. Another six inches and I might have been a managing director rather than a mere executive. Napoleon and others defied this disadvantage. But it has been noted that the senior officers of large companies have a greater average height than the mass. I put down Montgomery’s somewhat trying behaviour to his sense of physical inferiority.
All this, sadly, starts young. Attractive children are judged as more intelligent and if we encounter children in a scrap we tend to blame the least attractive of the two. And, to round off what could be a very long list, I grew a beard in middle life. I was interested to see how the ladies I knew divided between those who moved away and those who came in closer. However my wife commented that it was like committing adultery without all the hassle. I refrained from asking how she knew – and kept the beard.
It is not hard to identify the lessons here. The Latin behind ‘attraction’ translates as ‘to be drawn towards’. So by definition we respond appropriately. And there is some basis for this: as you would expect attractive people have a higher level of success. Good symmetry is a sign of good health and good physical capacity. Much of this is related to evolution: a good guide but not infallible. It can lead to injustices. And it works both ways: some years ago I agreed to fund the training of a nurse in India. Of course I did the proper checks but what really settled my mind was her beautiful handwriting. I have no regrets.