Friday, April 22, 2011

Criminals are ugly – yes, really

Has it ever struck you that in movies the villain is pretty much always ugly? Whether you take a James Bond film, a horror movie, or a Disney character, the bad guy is usually rather ‘esthetically challenged’, dotted with rather unsightly, coarse features.

Well, it now appears that these film makers are rather more realistic in their portrayal of the bad guys than you might have guessed. Criminals – as research by professors Naci Mocan from Louisiana State and Erdal Tekin from Georgia State University showed – are often indeed pretty ugly.

Naci and Erdal obtained data on 20,745 people, who were interviewed and rated at various points during their lives (in the period 1994 – 2002). A small army of independent interviewers rated the person’s level of attractiveness (ranging from very unattractive to very attractive). Subsequently, Naci and Erdal statistically compared this indicator of physical attractiveness with the incidence of the respondent having been involved in a crime, such as property damage, burglary, robbery, theft, assault, or drug-related crimes. And even when they corrected these models for all sorts of background characteristics, such as ethnic background, religion, family situation, income, and so on, the answer was pretty clear: criminals are ugly.

The intriguing question is, of course, how come? Although this involves a healthy dose of speculation, we do know quite a lot from prior research about the influence of physical attractiveness on such things as income and schooling, which might shed some light on the issue. For example, we know from prior studies that good-looking children receive more attention at school, are considered more trustworthy, and are judged to have higher academic potential.*

The problem is that many of these prejudices start to act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Ugly children start to do less well at school because of the low expectations placed on them: they have less belief in themselves, less confidence, they receive less personal attention from their tutors, and so on. And, as a consequence, the prophecy comes true; they do achieve less.

Once on the job market, they are then once again confronted with the same prejudice, making things even more challenging. For example, research has shown that, given the same qualifications, physically attractive applicants are considered more suitable for a particular job. They are also recommended to receive higher starting salaries.* Indeed, the handsome subjects in Naci and Erdal’s study also made substantially more money than their esthetically more challenged counterparts. To conclude, handsome children are helped to achieve more, once they reach adulthood they are more likely to be successful in a job interview, and once they are in the job they get paid more.

As a consequence of these effects, on the margin, ugly people are more often tempted – or perhaps pushed – into a life of crime than people who are physically attractive. The ugly ducklings amongst us are often devout of the opportunities that befall the beautiful and, therefore, comparatively are more prone to end up in crime. So next time Donald Duck traps the thugs, or 007 eliminates the villain, we should also allow ourselves to feel a slight sense of grief and sympathy for the ugly crooks, who might have achieved so much more in life had mother nature made them just that little bit more pleasing to our eye.

* How fundamental our human inclination is to look upon handsome people more favorably than on uglier ones is evidenced by research that shows that, interestingly, even babies pay more attention to the good-looking people peering into their pram than to their equally enthusiastic but less handsome aunts and uncles (Samuels & Elwy, 1985).

** One exception to this rule is that physically less attractive women are generally deemed more qualified than their attractive counterparts when the job they are being considered for is a stereotypical masculine job (Heilman & Saruwatari, 1979).