Original Post (with comments)
I’ve written, on occasion, about the influence of looks in our society. Let me attempt to codify my thoughts. The whole thing hinges upon the generalization that individuals in America (and elsewhere, but America, in particular) respond differently to people they perceive as physically attractive versus people who come off as unattractive. I believe this is largely genetic.
In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spends some time discussing the biases that we all have below the surface of consciousness. The point of the book is to put forth the notion that our minds are very good at “thin-slicing,” which is using a small amount of information to make decisions very quickly, and that, while this should often be embraced, it happens behind the locked door of our subconscious. He cites the intuitive behavior of successful art dealers, professional athletes, professional poker players, and military leaders to demonstrate the good side of thin slicing. However, he examines the dark side of thin slicing when he discusses how people respond to physical appearance.
In evolutionary terms, there are physical attributes that indicate fitness – tallness, healthy hair, healthy teeth, symmetry in facial features, good posture, a muscular and lean physique, and so on. Youth in females indicates fertility, so males prefer younger women. Conversely, size and brawn and chiseled features indicate virility in males, which is why females prefer “hunks.” (We’re talking about cavemen here.) The idea is that our evolutionary ancient emotions, the ones operating under the radar of consciousness, are tuned to be drawn to people with these attributes. Gladwell mentions the ex-president Warren Harding as a prime example. Here was a guy who was big with a Roman aristocracy kind of good looks, but he wasn’t especially intelligent, nor was he an impressive public speaker, and he had a long list of character flaws. Nevertheless, with the help of a clever senator, he was elected to office, presumably for nothing more than his good looks. A more contemporary example is the poll Gladwell conducted of half the companies on the Fortune 500 list.
He found that almost all CEOs are tall white males. Brevity, if I am capable of it, prevents me from detailing all of his caveats and conditions, but suffice it to say that his findings bear a stark contrast to normal demographic distributions. In short, it appears that upward mobility is easier for tall white males than it is for short ones or non-white ones or both (surprise, surprise). Of course, the argument can (and should) be made that Gladwell’s findings only betray the extent of in-group prejudice among the few who make it to the top. But, even if this is the case, how things got to be that way still warrants an explanation. For my part, I’m inclined to agree with the author that individuals whose physical appearance indicates fitness in an evolutionary sense enjoy an advantage when dealing with other people, an advantage that is largely unknown by the people conferring it upon them.
If this is true. If. Then, it means that looks do matter in society. It means that no matter how enlightened we may become, no matter how we may deliberately look beyond physical appearance, we are ill-served if we expect the same thing out in the world. We may choose to take the higher ground and assert that people who modulate their interpersonal behavior based upon something so shallow are to be ignored. But the notion that much of this appearance bias happens below the level of consciousness strains the sensibility of this approach. No, I think there’s a better option. Once again, I find myself in a situation where I need two sets of rules for how I operate. I’ve stumbled on another sort of dualist strategy.
I think of all people as falling into one of two groups – people I want long-term relationships with and people I don’t. When I first meet someone, I don’t know which category they’ll fall into, so they start out in the latter. Over time, however, if we get along, and it makes sense, they can transition into the former. The point is that I apply different interpersonal rules to the two different categories.
For the long-term relationship folks, I prefer enlightenment. I encourage looking beyond physical appearance because I know that the rewards are plentiful. Shallow people don’t make the cut. But for people with whom I have no intention or interest in any meaningful long-term relationship, I have no requirements whatsoever. I abstract them all into this group that, among other things, is defined by the least common genetic denominator. I assume that they’re all cavemen doing precisely as their genes instruct. Sure, I’m proven wrong a lot, but it’s better than assuming that they’re all highly aware of their genes’ negative influences and are compensating for them all the time. The consequences of getting this wrong are regular disappointment. Anyhow, things get interesting we we realize that sometimes we need things from these people.
I need to get one of them to like me enough to hire me for a job, for example. I assume that this person will form an instant impression of me simply by how I look, and that depending upon what he or she comes up with, I may or may not have an easy time in the interview. Just to venture into absurdity for a moment, suppose there’s a scoring system that is used by the interviewer to determine if I get a thumbs up or thumbs down, say from 1 to 10. It takes a 9 or better to get the job. If my appearance impresses him or her, I may start with a 6 or a 7. That means I only have to come up with a couple of points to ensure success. It may be my intelligence or my personality or my experience, but whatever it is, it will not be about my appearance. But suppose another applicant comes in and the interviewer is dazzled by his appearance. He may start with a nine, meaning that if he doesn’t do anything to cost himself points, the job is his. What I’m getting at here is the notion of an appearance delta.
I would define this as the difference between my appearance and the appearance that would grant me instant acceptance in any given social situation. Women like Elizabeth Hurley, for example, have no appearance delta. She’s so attractive that people fall over themselves to spend time with her. This is the bane of the beautiful but intelligent woman’s existence – she has a tough time being taken seriously simply because she’s hot. Similarly, a guy with Sean Connery’s looks experiences an entirely different version of life than I do. I’m not upset by this; it’s a fact of life. Indeed, I think recognizing this has a lot to offer in terms of enjoying what little time we have here.
It’s very useful to figure out what your appearance delta is, and I should note that it is somewhat situation dependent. To a heterosexual soldier coming home from two months of all-male field exercises, an average-looking woman has less of a delta than she does if she meets him when he’s been in the general population for a while. Nevertheless, knowing where you stand looks-wise in the minds of others has its benefits. We have to acknowledge that much of the enjoyment we get out of life has to do with interpersonal acceptance. It’s that concurrence thing I keep talking about. It’s an axiom in human endeavors that not being accepted in social situations is emotionally distressing. Sometimes, given the idea of subconscious appearance bias, the culprit can be how we look. Regardless of how distasteful this may seem, I just can’t see how there’s anything to be gained by being indignant or burying my head in the sand on this. It’s a matter of practicality.
The key to the usefulness of the appearance delta is in the notion that it can be overcome by non-physical attributes. All it takes is a gimmick, and there are all kinds. Being smart can be a gimmick, as can being funny or empathetic. Being an artist, such as musician or painter, can also serve as a gimmick, and being rich and/or powerful works, too. The point is that knowing your delta tells you how much gimmick you need in any given situation if acceptance is what you’re looking for. Harsh as it is to say, if you’re short, fat, and bald, you’re gonna need a lot more gimmick than the guy who’s tall, lean, and well coiffed. Now, you can object and refuse to participate in this ever-so-shallow game of human interaction, but you should do so at your peril.
As for me, I do what I can with what I have. I stay in shape and I try to look presentable when I’m in situations where acceptance among folks in the non-long-term relationship category will be of benefit. I pay attention to what I wear and how I carry myself. I estimate my delta and decide which kind and how much gimmick I want to employ. Shallow? You bet. Does it work? Yup. However, when I’m around members of the long-term relationship group, I’m less concerned about appearance. I don’t care if my hair is messed up and I opt for flip-flops and t-shirts instead of nicer clothes. And I don’t bother with gimmick; I’m just myself. That’s the beauty of the inner circle – you can rise above the bullshit and just live.
At the end of the day, we all want to be accepted. We all want to be in on the inside joke. And as much as we’d all (especially those who have a high delta) like it if acceptance were strictly a function of character, it just isn’t, at least not enough to sustain us. What can start as a relationship founded on looks or looks plus gimmick can turn into anything but. To close ourselves off to these opportunities simply limits the amount of acceptance we’ll enjoy in life. This doesn’t mean that we long for acceptance so much that we pursue it indiscriminately. That’s trading problems for problems. It only means that we play the shallow game to get our feet in the door and then let our criteria for separating long-termers from non-long-termers kick in. It ain’t pretty, but it works.