Saturday, April 18, 2009

Susan Boyle & the Ugly Truth About Beauty

Like millions of others, I am entranced watching Susan Boyle soar over the shaming (and shameful) mockery to which the Britain’s Got Talent crew and audience subjected her before her performance. I just listened to an older recording, “Cry Me a River.” The woman’s got chops, no doubt, and I am hoping that she has a great career to match her great talent.

I’ve also been intrigued by the outpouring of complaints about how quick human beings are to judge individuals based on their appearance. Some comments suggest that the fault lies with the media or the entertainment industry (pop quiz: are they any different?), or with men or the young. But there’s some research out there that suggests we are hardwired to respond to beauty: we think it's more, well, attractive.

Here is a summary of some experiments I read about long ago and far away (but researched a bit in order to write this entry).

Experiment #1: a woman made up to be deliberately unattractive stages a seizure on a crowded train at rush hour. Not a single person stops to help her. In fact, everyone walks right over her. A second woman, quite beautiful, stages a seizure on a crowded train at rush hour. She is instantly surrounded by people who express concern and desire to help.

(I’ve been unable to track down any citation for this, but there’s an interesting discussion of similar experiments in Elaine Hatfield’s book, Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life.)

Experiment #2: this one was trying to figure out if our reactions to beauty are innate or conditioned. The experimenters gathered up photographs of women they collectively agreed were quite beautiful and others they felt were unattractive. They made an effort to include representatives from all of the so-called races in both groups. Then they showed them to infants. Time and again the infants showed far more interest in looking at the photos of women the researchers deemed beautiful and turning away from the photos of women deemed unattractive. Thus, it would seem that we have some kind of instinctive sense of what constitutes female human beauty.

Subsequent researchers have shown that the innate preference for beauty is not gender specific or even species specific. According to these researchers even very young infants would prefer to look at the faces of pretty cats or tigers rather than ugly ones. They conclude that the preference is part of our perceptual hardware. Fortunately, our judgments can and do change under environmental influence (which explains how really ugly skinny plastic glasses suddenly look, you know, very cool).

So we can admonish ourselves to never ever judge a book by its cover, but it seems that’s exactly what we've been doing forever and what we’ll keep on doing in spite of our collective admiration for Susan Boyle. Mark my words. The next time some overweight or extremely geeky person stands up in front of Simon Cowell and waggles his or her hips and promises to wow him, he and we will roll our eyes and sneer.

So, yeah, the beautiful people get a leg up from day one. Fair? Nope, but I guess that evolution never did care about what’s fair.

No comments:

Post a Comment