Why Are Smart People Ugly?

12 Jan

(Socrates, not the prettiest crayon in the box)

Are smart people usually ugly? It turns out that it might be the opposite: Smart people are usually attractive.

Early in the 20th century, a couple of psychological studies were done that showed that people usually associated intelligence with beauty. One apt psychologist, however, coined the phrase “the halo effect” to explain this correlation. People will usually improve their assessment of someone’s secondary qualities after describing an initial positive quality.

So when people look at a mug-shot of an attractive person, they will also assume that the person is tall and intelligent, and a host of other good qualities. This, of course, possibly disproves the association with looks and smarts. But why would an assumption like that come about in the first place? Could it be an evolutionary adaptation?

It turns out that there seems to be a slight correlation between looks and intellect. From the link above:

Now there were two findings: First, scientists knew that it was possible to gauge someone’s intelligence just by sizing him up; second, they knew that people tend to assume that beauty and brains go together. So they asked the next question: Could it be that good-looking people really are more intelligent?

Here the data were less clear, but several reviews of the literature have concluded that there is indeed a small, positive relationship between beauty and brains. Most recently, the evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa pulled huge datasets from two sources—the National Child Development Study in the United Kingdom (including 17,000 people born in 1958), and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States (including 21,000 people born around 1980)—both of which included ratings of physical attractiveness and scores on standard intelligence tests. When Kanazawa analyzed the numbers, he found the two were related: In the U.K., for example, attractive children have an additional 12.4 points of IQ, on average. The relationship held even when he controlled for family background, race, and body size.

From this, Kanazawa concluded that the famous halo effect is not a cognitive illusion, as so many academics had assumed, but rather an accurate reading of the world: We assume that beautiful people are smart, he argues, because they are.

Of course, when I first read that paragraph, I implicitly thought about how differently men and women place value on physical attractiveness. For men, more “attraction points” are placed on physical attractiveness, because men, from an evolutionary perspective, value fertility. And the fertility of a woman is highly correlated with how attractive she is (think waist-hip ratio, breast size, size of hands/feet, health of skin, etc. They are all indicators of youth, thus of fertility). For women, on the other hand, they place less value on a man’s physical attractiveness and care more about the overall package. A less physically attractive man could still be attractive to a vast majority of women if he’s awesome in every other area.

As a side note, a lot of confusion about the sexes seems to come from simple projection: Men value physical attractiveness, so they assume that women do too. Women value the total package (confidence, accomplishments, personality, etc.) and then assume that men do as well. Projection might be explaining this.

Anyway, the beginning of the very next paragraph in this article sort of confirmed what I was thinking:

The story does have some caveats and complications. First, a few other studies have come up with different results. A recent look at yearbook photos from a Wisconsin high school in 1957 found no link between IQ and attractiveness among the boys, but a positive correlation for the girls.

So there we have it. If attractive people are usually correlated with smart people, then this might explain why we even have a halo effect bias in the first place. Remember, evolution and fitness only cares about what’s good enough (“good enough for government work”), not a perfect correlation.

Jumping a bit ahead:

Kanazawa thinks it’s [that some common genetic factor produces both smarts and beauty], arguing that intelligent men have tended to rise to the top of the social hierarchy and select beautiful women as their mates. Their offspring, contra George Bernard Shaw’s supposed quip, would have had both traits together.

Other possible explanations:

Another theory holds that certain environmental factors in the womb or just after birth can produce both facial disfigurements and cognitive impairments on one side, or facial symmetry and high intelligence on the other. A third suggests that attractive children are treated better, and receive more attention from their caretakers and teachers, which helps to nurture a sharper mind. It’s also possible that smart people are better able to take care of themselves and their looks.

These also seems to be possible. Especially the third suggestion, since women who are told to think more like a man during tests that men are stereotypically better at get higher test scores. And on the flip side of that, it could also explain the dumb jock/blond stereotype, since those people are sociallized into not utilizing their full intellectual potential.

The thing is, these explanations aren’t exclusive. They could be working in parallel, compounding (or having compounded) each other.

More good stuff:

In addition, Kanazawa points out that a closer look at the data reveals an interesting fact: The very ugliest people in his dataset are dumber on average, but they also tend to be the most diverse when it comes to intelligence. That means that if you’re at the low end of the spectrum for looks, you’re more likely than anyone else to be at one extreme end for IQ (either very dumb or very smart). If that’s the case, then it might provide another reason why Sartre and Socrates types stick out in our minds. We know (consciously or not) that ugly people tend to be a little dim; but at the same time, there are more brilliant brutes running around than we might expect.

For his part, Kanazawa rejects the notion of the horns effect—he doesn’t believe the smart-and-ugly stereotype exists at all. (Indeed, it has never been shown in the lab.) Instead, he says, we may be assuming that smart people are nerdy, and that nerdy people tend to lack social skills. Since people with social skills are attractive, there could be an indirect link between at least one kind of “attractiveness” and intelligence. But if you’re looking at pure “beauty,” as measured by rating photographs or measured facial features, then intelligence and looks go hand-in-hand.

So it turns out that smart people aren’t ugly and that it might be the opposite. We only have the ugly and smart stereotype due to social factors and not due to biological ones.

Of course, I have to close this with a note on religion. It’s one of the great ironies of life that women are more religious than men (and more into other Type 1 [i.e. “intuitive”] thinking like astrology, tarot cards, psychics [cold readings], etc.) yet it is the men, specifically the intellectual elites, who have created all of the world’s major religions (no, it wasn’t illiterate desert goat herders who created the Jewish Tanakh or Christian NT since only about 1 – 10% of the populations that those works were created in were literate). This makes me think that religions are created soley for the purpose of getting chicks and getting them to bear your children, since anti-abortion ideology is fundamnetally pro-male. And on a smaller scale, if one wants to be successful with women, this suggests that one should learn some cold reading tricks. Cold readings tap into the same kinda-nonsense-but-not-complete-nonsense that religion does.

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Posted by on January 12, 2012 in cognitive science, economics/sociology


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