“’He is also handsome,’ replied Elizabeth; ‘which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can.’”
– Pride and Prejudice
If you’ve been on Facebook in the last week or so, you’ve probably seen a picture of Jeremy Meeks. Meeks was arrested earlier this month in Stockton, California, on felony weapons charges. Considering that Meeks has served time on two prior occasions – 9 months for auto theft and two years for grand larceny – his bail was set at $1,000,000. The state of California is not taking these charges lightly. The same can’t be said about the internet, though. The Jeremy Meeks fan club on Facebook has almost 200,000 likes, has pictures from his middle school year book, and offers sentiments like, “If your heart was a prison, I would like to be sentenced to life.” Strangers have donated $4500 to his legal defense via GoFundMe.
Attractive people are awarded many advantages in life. They are given easier access to better education early in life and are perceived by teachers as more intelligent than their less attractive counterparts. Aggressive acts by attractive children are perceived as “less naughty” when performed by an attractive child and are punished less. (Interestingly, in this case it’s better to be an unattractive girl than an unattractive boy: the psychologist Jordan Rich found that unattractive girls were treated more leniently than unattractive boys, though both groups were treated far more harshly than their good-looking counterparts.) In general, we perceive attractive people to be more talented, kind, honest, and intelligent. We are also less likely to convict them of crimes.
The consequence of this bias is sometimes horrific. In the 1970s, the serial killer Ted Bundy relied on his good looks and easy charm to lure more than 30 women to their deaths. (Bundy would also wear fake casts and arm slings and visibly struggle to carry his belongings, tricking women into lowering their defenses and putting themselves in vulnerable positions. The scene in “Silence of the Lambs” where Jame Gumb pretends to struggle to put a couch in his van was inspired by Ted Bundy.) The British psychologist Sandie Taylor has suggested Bundy’s looks might have been enough to exonerate him. “If that forensic evidence hadn’t been there, he might well have got off, because he was quite charming and knew how to work people,” she said. If you are dubious, consider what Judge Edward Cowert said to him after his conviction:
It is ordered that you be put to death by a current of electricity, that current be passed through your body until you are dead. Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity as I’ve experienced in this courtroom. You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer, and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself.
It bears repeating that this is being said to a man who was just convicted of murdering more than thirty women. “I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that.”
Of course, it’s probably not news to anyone that attractive people are held to another standard. One of my favorite aspects of “Pride & Prejudice” is how Jane Austen took pains to set up the villain Wickham as being amiable and good looking. When Wickham first volunteers a slanderous account of Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet says, “There was truth in his looks.” Austen clarifies for us: “It was not in her nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance.” When Jane Bennet comes to learn that Wickham has been lying, her reaction is, “Poor Wickham! There is such an expression of goodness in his countenance!” It was hard to believe that a good-looking man could be such a scoundrel. Not much has changed in two hundred years.
I’ve written before about the halo effect and confirmation bias. If we understand those things, it’s easy to see why we give attractive folk such an easy time of things. We make intuitive judgments about a person within seconds of meeting them and this influences our opinions of their character. That is the halo effect. That impression having been formed, we seek evidence that supports our judgment and disregard evidence that contradicts it. That is confirmation bias. The two work together like seed and fertilizer.
This should not be read as a tome against attractive people. The point isn’t to say “good looking, bad; ugly, good,” but rather to shed some light on how our decision making works and to illustrate how that sometimes leads us down some bad roads. In the case of some women who had the misfortune of meeting Ted Bundy, “attractive = good” was used against them with tragic consequences. For most of us, the result of these biases may not be much more severe than paying premiums on less-tasty apples. But in general, when you find yourself drawing conclusions about someone’s character, it might be worth your time to ask if you’ve actually seen enough evidence to support those conclusions.