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November 29, 2007


Perhaps firms should conduct "blind" interviews of potential employees in which the potential employee is interviewed while behind a screen.

I believe it's been shown that intelligence does correlate positively with height. Is it possible that it correlates with symmetry or other physical traits that make people attractive?
I have no doubt that a bias is at work here, but is it possible that bias has some foundation in fact?

Jeff may be on too something here. I remember reading that symmetrical facial features is somewhat dependent on the level of oxygenation the fetus gets in the later stages of pregnacy. Of course I may have mixed up my facts but if this is true it seems to provide something of an explaination for the possible corrolation Jeff talks about.

Not if you're basing your judgment of intelligence on a description that's held constant with just the pictures swapped.

For example, a study of the 1974 Canadian federal elections found that attractive candidates received more than two and a half times as many votes as unattractive candidates (Efran & Patterson, 1976).

This does not mean what it sounds like it means. Well, it *could*, but it doesn't have to. Specifically, this result is consistent with the voters' claims that they don't vote for candidates because of physical attractiveness.

This is a case of "correlation does not imply causation". Just because good looks were correlated with votes doesn't mean they caused votes. There could be another effect causing both.

Such effects are easy to imagine. For example, perhaps people with good looks receive more encouragement in school and from their parents, and thus turn out smarter. Then they could have received all those votes because they were genuinely better candidates. This particular possibility may have been looked for and ruled out, but there are infinitely many others.

The important thing is that you can't find the truth purely by finding correlations. What you need are explanations. Specifically, there needs to be a detailed explanation of how being more attractive *causes* favoritism (and also of what causes people to be blind to their own favoritism). And when we have that explanation, then we can compare it to rival theories that explain the observed data, including the correlation, in other ways.

I wonder if this also depends a bit on context:

I remember when studying mathematics, that almost all professors and most of the good students where weird in several ways: the way they dressed, the way they spoke, the way they behaved etc... It seemed that the greater the genius the weirder his behavior.

Now I wonder if the bias in these academic settings could be the other way round: if you look like a normal person you will stand out and everyone will think: this is probably not one of the brighter guys. On the other hand if your last haircut was 2 years ago and you are always wearing the same jacket everyone will say: wow this guy must be one of the geniuses here.

What do you think?

Paying attention to the description is probably less useful than looking at the features - the features are generally harder to misrepresent, and at the very least haven't passed through another person's mind before they got to you.

As Different says, but in regard to connections between perceived intelligence, and perceived honesty, to pick two particularly useful examples - the usefulness of either quality, in regard to your interactions with the individual, are dependent upon both. I/e, it isn't a great idea to trust what a not-too-bright individual tells you, even if he or she has never told a lie in their life, for the simple reason that they may not have the faculty to evaluate their statements. And the reverse might be true - particularly bright individuals may not be good candidates for trust, particularly on important issues, because they have great faculty for making value judgments about when it is most profitable to lie. Individuals at either extremes may not be good candidates for trust.

I had a long discussion with my brother on precisely the issue of attractiveness - in regard to banks. Banks are great examples because they spend immense quantities of money making themselves look respectable. So - would you trust your money to a bank that was going to spend some of it making itself look good? Or would you trust your money to a bank that doesn't care how it looks? A bank that cares about its reputation enough to spend massive amounts of money maintaining it isn't going to sacrifice that by stealing your relatively small sum - it is the better choice, presuming on the rationality of the bank. An individual who goes to great lengths to APPEAR competent is going to try to BE competent - someone who doesn't care whether or not they appear competent do not care whether you think they are competent, and hence, may not make an effort to be more competent as relates to you and your business. The better-groomed candidate, other things being equal, is the better choice, presuming upon that individual's rationality. (Particularly since the issue is reinforcing - clients and customers, after all, are making the same judgments.)

An individual who makes an effort to appear more attractive likely has a reason for doing so - they may care what other people think of them (which suggests they'll be nicer, when somebody is watching, at least), they may want to appear more competent (which suggests they'll be better at other things they do, presuming they follow similar levels of investment), and, presuming they DO have rational reasons for taking care of their appearance, they may simply be smarter than your average person. Naturally good looking people may be getting the benefits of biases we develop based on those who acquire appearances by effort - and may get points for honesty, as well, because they aren't attempting to "lie" about their appearance. (Which would be interesting, because it would mean naturally good-looking individuals gain more benefits than those who provided much of the bias incentive to begin with.)

Just some thoughts.

This seems relevant, though perhaps the causality is uncertain.

Eliezer - wasn't Jeff's comment intended to suggest, not that there isn't a bias, but that the bias may be adaptive? Offhand I can't imagine quite what edge it might supply, but perhaps some story could be told.

It helps to have lots of grease marks on your jacket. No dry cleaner or washing machine should ever touch these.
The mathematical mastermind is usually dressed in brown and green cords with lots of spots, while an artistic genius looks either like a colourful parrot or a dark-suited banker. On the other hand, bankers like to wear their designer-made bicycle helmets all day long.
If you are a female long legged blonde with blue eyes you are more likely to get the job if your employer is a short asymmetric male. The halo effect promising a good shag and many little mini blondes.
A long legged blonde tends to employ a short legged dark haired obese female and would like to marry her asymmetric male boss. Boss is going to replace the blonde model if she is older than thirty. All of them are honest and kind as well as greedy, only interested in the best possible outcome for all parties.
No irony intended!


Just for interest - Joel Wapnick, a music education scholar at McGill University (and also, I discover from Googling him just now, an international Scrabble champ) has shown that people rate the quality of musical performances from more attractive players more highly than those from less attractive players. No surprise there. However, the effect persists even in an auditory-only condition, i.e. when the raters cannot see the performers. Wapnick has replicated the finding in different situations over a series of papers.


Do you have a reference for "stock analysts rating unfamiliar stocks judge them as generally good or generally bad - low risk and high returns, or high risk and low returns - in defiance of ordinary economic theory, which says that risk and return should correlate positively"?

I am also struck by the correlation-vs.-causation issue in the canadian voters study. Moreover, how do we know that the attractiveness rating isn't actually a reflection of the qualities the voters claim to be looking for? I.e. a more confident, intelligent, eloquent candidate would probably appear more attractive than one who isn't, all other things being equal.

I am sympathetic to the counter-comments but need to point out that most of us (those who are not perfect 10s) *want* to believe that there is something else underlying the evidence that looks matter. Who wants to accept that their talents are dominated by appearance?

I've noticed this in myself... I find it hard to think poorly of attractive females, even when the evidence indicates that I ought to.

it would seem that a good strategy would be to always vote for the ugliest candidate and hire the ugliest job candidate -- on the presumption that their (difficult to judge) talents must be tremendous in order for them to make it this far in the process despite their looks.

Nate - that strategy can only work insofar as other groups aren't utilizing it, and to that extent, you will be punished through those groups hesitating to employ you in their capacities as clients and customers.

I'd be interested to know the "curve" drawn when physical attractiveness is plotted against level of bias - whether there is a linear relationship, or whether the effect (indeed affect) tails off (or even turns negative?!) at some point. i.e. whether things just keep getting "better" the more attractive you are.

I think that the quoted Cialdini text blurs the distinction between physical attractiveness and grooming.

I can well imagine that people react positively to a well-groomed person because of the values such care over appearance indirectly demonstrates (social intelligence/wealth/hygeine etc.).

A halo effect based on pure physical attractiveness probably has more to do with a net positive bias resulting from a complex set of sexual dynamics created by different combinations of male/female and attractive/unattractive.


"...the accumulating evidence suggests that physical characteristics do give clues about intelligence, that such clues are picked up by other people, and that these clues are also associated with beauty."

"You should be suspicious if the people you know seem to separate too cleanly into devils and angels."

The halo effect perhaps provides a better explanation for the apparent insistence on Hitler's weird sex life:


(from post on NYT ideas blog)

BOOM! Headshot, take that #####!

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