A word for the wise

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.

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About Quentin

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

8 Responses to A word for the wise

  1. John Nolan says:

    ‘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.’

    Nothing new here.

    ‘The hungry judges soon the sentence sign
    And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.’

    A. Pope, ‘The Rape of the Lock’ , 1717.

  2. John Thomas says:

    Attraction … I think that there is such a thing as an attractice personality – such people generally succeed much more than we others. “It’s not what you know, or even WHO you know, it’s having an atrractive personality, personal magnetism, the X factor” – I say. And such people may not be tall, good looking, well spoken, etc. I always think of a student I knew in Wales, in 1970 (I won’t name him), but he was physically ugly, and yet the loveliest young woman – from nice Welsh homes – flocked to him.

  3. G.D says:

    The fact that ‘studies’, of the sort you mention and the reality of their findings (although there are always exceptions to the rule) are becoming known more, there is more chance of people responding realistically to the perfidious two-faced ‘glitter & shine’ with some modicum of awareness; eventually, hopefully, ignoring it as a factor for discernment; or at least holding them to the periphery.
    (Including the charismatic traits of character, John, which can be used any which way).

    All depends on how unconscious we allow ourselves to remain, and respond in accordance with subliminal stimuli. Rather than the God given ability we all have to recognise and choose intrinsic values – for the good of all. …
    …..or ill, unfortunately.

    At least they will be truly responsible choices. “We were only following orders” made null and void.
    But, judging by the leaders that get/are getting elected/appointed and supported that’s a long way off for most.

    …. And yet millions have been drawn to the unattractive life & passion of Jesus. …. Now he must have a good P.R. secretary!

    There have also been studies on how repetitive ‘advertising’ loses much of it’s impact; shame it’s not the same for ‘politic’ propaganda. (Def:- acting according to the interests of status or authority within an organisation rather than matters of principle). Maybe that’s why the ‘glitter & shine’ is encouraged by them?

  4. galerimo says:

    Your comment on Elizabeth would have delighted Robert Menzies in his day.

    However when it comes to the attractive power of appearances, Theresa May moving to the sound of “Dancing Queen”, trumps any movement Queen Elizabeth ever endowed with “a power one could be drawn towards”.

    Menzies knew there was nothing like a line or two from Thomas Ford’s “There is a Lady Sweet and Kind” to set you up for a Knighthood. Or might it have been the Aussie accent that swung it for him with those German upstarts?

    Appearances are the things we create. Like the British making out their archenemy Napoleon to be forever smaller than he actually was. Appearances are made to serve a purpose.

    We manufacture appearances so as to give them appeal but only beauty has the power to attract. Like its fellow transcendentals it is also good and true.

    Beauty is what makes us God’ s work of creation. God gifts it to us.
    And such a work, according to the Bible, took God a whole week.

    And for Harold Wilson, the optimist who always carried a raincoat, that can also be “a very long time in politics”.

    That “week’s work” continues as grace in this life and glory in the next.
    It really is the only thing that attracts no matter how ugly the appearances.

  5. aeiou says:

    Living creatures, to survive, must distinguish friend from foe on first encounter in a very short time. Narrow, quick instinct rules. Once we’ve decided that that organic object walking toward us is likely not a foe, instinct can relax a little and dig deeper into its database of experience and preference. Then rationalization enters the picture. Almost before we know it, the confidence man is our bosom buddy.

  6. Iona says:

    I’m sure the average bishop is taller than the average parish priest (of similar age).

  7. David Smith says:

    “All this, sadly, starts young.”

    Sadly? Prejudice is both normal and a sign of mental health. The prejudices you’re talking about – height, accent, appearance – are useful for making the quick judgements we need to make to avoid the dangerously time-wasting activity of judging every new phenomenon from scratch.

    What you object to is a person’s “culturally incorrect” prejudices. If you want to form a child’s thinking and feeling into the channels in which you believe it ought to flow, you need to start early and persist and repeat ruthlessly. You think tall people are more attractive, Jimmy? You’re wrong. You must not think that way. God hates that kind of thinking.

  8. Geordie says:

    As a young teacher,I found it frustrating to find that the children who looked bright were often the opposite. I used to think there should a law against it. However, as I became more experienced, I learned to base my judgements on more substantial evidence.
    I carried this ability into other spheres, When I became an Ofsted inspector I was very frustrated to find that the leader of a team I joined was totally incompetent. He was tall, very well-spoken and able to talk for long periods and say nothing, with great authority. Fortunately he didn’t last long and was invited to take early retirement. However some would call that a reward rather than punishment. It’s the old “Peter” principle.

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