I would describe myself as a short man. While I like to think that I have a pleasant face, I would never describe myself as handsome. I wear spectacles – often two pairs — around my neck, and I have a short beard and moustache. I say all this because I am very aware that people make quick judgments about those they meet – and there is a tendency to cling to such judgments despite contrary later evidence. Indeed, even as you read this, you will be developing ideas about the sort of person I am.
This has been important to me in my life since, for various reasons, I have had to speak to many audiences. And I am aware that in a matter of two or three minutes my listeners have formed a view – not only of me but whether I am worth listening to. I write about this because it is only our acceptance that we are vulnerable to such judgments that we may be able to correct our own vulnerability in this regard.
There is a well known story of the discussions between Nixon and Kennedy – on television and on radio. Most people would say that Kennedy was a fine-looking man, while Nixon was, by comparison, dark and threatening – despite his intelligence. When the discussion was on television the audience tended to give the laurels to Kennedy; when it was on radio it was Nixon who got the palm. And plenty of studies looking at voting for politicians, via their appearances, have been carried out in this country.
I do not know enough about accents in the US, but I do know that, in this country, accents – both geographical and social – are an important measurement. I am able to place someone in their social position before they have finished their first sentence. For instance, people with what we would call a BBC accent (it is no longer so of course) are taken to be more intelligent than their lesser friends. I wonder to what extent this is a factor when students apply to top universities. The selectors may be quite unaware of their bias.
Perhaps more ominously, appearance can be important in court. Having a pleasant and attractive face not only increases your chances of bring believed, it gets you better damages if you are suing, and lower damages if you are being sued.
Perhaps I don’t come out too badly. I may be short rather than tall – and there is good evidence that taller people carry a level of authority – and tend to be in higher business positions. And that, I think, is why the ‘short’ Montgomery was so oafish in his demands. On the other, I wear spectacles – which are recognized as a sign of intelligence.
We might wonder why we have this tendency to make, and hold onto, such unreliable judgments. The answer of course is evolution. Our primitive ancestors survived, and so bred, because they spotted early signs of danger. They either had to be ready to fight, assisted by their rush of adrenaline, or escape. Those without this reaction did not survive and so were less likely to breed.
Now of course our brains have developed mightily and so we are able to modify such bad judgments. But to do so we have first to accept that our instinctive judgments are dangerous unless we are ready to recognise them. Once recognised, we are able to modify them. And the greatest danger lies with those who are confident that they have no such prejudiced reactions.