Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Appearance Delta and Gimmick Theory

I've written, on occasion, about the influence of looks in our society. Let me attempt to codify my thoughts. The whole thing hinges upon the generalization that individuals in America (and elsewhere, but America, in particular) respond differently to people they perceive as physically attractive versus people who come off as unattractive. I believe this is largely genetic.

In his new book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell spends some time discussing the biases that we all have below the surface of consciousness. The point of the book is to put forth the notion that our minds are very good at "thin-slicing," which is using a small amount of information to make decisions very quickly, and that, while this should often be embraced, it happens behind the locked door of our subconscious. He cites the intuitive behavior of successful art dealers, professional athletes, professional poker players, and military leaders to demonstrate the good side of thin slicing. However, he examines the dark side of thin slicing when he discusses how people respond to physical appearance.

In evolutionary terms, there are physical attributes that indicate fitness - tallness, healthy hair, healthy teeth, symmetry in facial features, good posture, a muscular and lean physique, and so on. Youth in females indicates fertility, so males prefer younger women. Conversely, size and brawn and chiseled features indicate virility in males, which is why females prefer "hunks." (We're talking about cavemen here.) The idea is that our evolutionary ancient emotions, the ones operating under the radar of consciousness, are tuned to be drawn to people with these attributes. Gladwell mentions the ex-president Warren Harding as a prime example. Here was a guy who was big with a Roman aristocracy kind of good looks, but he wasn't especially intelligent, nor was he an impressive public speaker, and he had a long list of character flaws. Nevertheless, with the help of a clever senator, he was elected to office, presumably for nothing more than his good looks. A more contemporary example is the poll Gladwell conducted of half the companies on the Fortune 500 list.

He found that almost all CEOs are tall white males. Brevity, if I am capable of it, prevents me from detailing all of his caveats and conditions, but suffice it to say that his findings bear a stark contrast to normal demographic distributions. In short, it appears that upward mobility is easier for tall white males than it is for short ones or non-white ones or both (surprise, surprise). Of course, the argument can (and should) be made that Gladwell's findings only betray the extent of in-group prejudice among the few who make it to the top. But, even if this is the case, how things got to be that way still warrants an explanation. For my part, I'm inclined to agree with the author that individuals whose physical appearance indicates fitness in an evolutionary sense enjoy an advantage when dealing with other people, an advantage that is largely unknown by the people conferring it upon them.

If this is true. If. Then, it means that looks do matter in society. It means that no matter how enlightened we may become, no matter how we may deliberately look beyond physical appearance, we are ill-served if we expect the same thing out in the world. We may choose to take the higher ground and assert that people who modulate their interpersonal behavior based upon something so shallow are to be ignored. But the notion that much of this appearance bias happens below the level of consciousness strains the sensibility of this approach. No, I think there's a better option. Once again, I find myself in a situation where I need two sets of rules for how I operate. I've stumbled on another sort of dualist strategy.

I think of all people as falling into one of two groups - people I want long-term relationships with and people I don't. When I first meet someone, I don't know which category they'll fall into, so they start out in the latter. Over time, however, if we get along, and it makes sense, they can transition into the former. The point is that I apply different interpersonal rules to the two different categories.

For the long-term relationship folks, I prefer enlightenment. I encourage looking beyond physical appearance because I know that the rewards are plentiful. Shallow people don't make the cut. But for people with whom I have no intention or interest in any meaningful long-term relationship, I have no requirements whatsoever. I abstract them all into this group that, among other things, is defined by the least common genetic denominator. I assume that they're all cavemen doing precisely as their genes instruct. Sure, I'm proven wrong a lot, but it's better than assuming that they're all highly aware of their genes' negative influences and are compensating for them all the time. The consequences of getting this wrong are regular disappointment. Anyhow, things get interesting we we realize that sometimes we need things from these people.

I need to get one of them to like me enough to hire me for a job, for example. I assume that this person will form an instant impression of me simply by how I look, and that depending upon what he or she comes up with, I may or may not have an easy time in the interview. Just to venture into absurdity for a moment, suppose there's a scoring system that is used by the interviewer to determine if I get a thumbs up or thumbs down, say from 1 to 10. It takes a 9 or better to get the job. If my appearance impresses him or her, I may start with a 6 or a 7. That means I only have to come up with a couple of points to ensure success. It may be my intelligence or my personality or my experience, but whatever it is, it will not be about my appearance. But suppose another applicant comes in and the interviewer is dazzled by his appearance. He may start with a nine, meaning that if he doesn't do anything to cost himself points, the job is his. What I'm getting at here is the notion of an appearance delta.

I would define this as the difference between my appearance and the appearance that would grant me instant acceptance in any given social situation. Women like Elizabeth Hurley, for example, have no appearance delta. She's so attractive that people fall over themselves to spend time with her. This is the bane of the beautiful but intelligent woman's existence - she has a tough time being taken seriously simply because she's hot. Similarly, a guy with Sean Connery's looks experiences an entirely different version of life than I do. I'm not upset by this; it's a fact of life. Indeed, I think recognizing this has a lot to offer in terms of enjoying what little time we have here.

It's very useful to figure out what your appearance delta is, and I should note that it is somewhat situation dependent. To a heterosexual soldier coming home from two months of all-male field exercises, an average-looking woman has less of a delta than she does if she meets him when he's been in the general population for a while. Nevertheless, knowing where you stand looks-wise in the minds of others has its benefits. We have to acknowledge that much of the enjoyment we get out of life has to do with interpersonal acceptance. It's that concurrence thing I keep talking about. It's an axiom in human endeavors that not being accepted in social situations is emotionally distressing. Sometimes, given the idea of subconscious appearance bias, the culprit can be how we look. Regardless of how distasteful this may seem, I just can't see how there's anything to be gained by being indignant or burying my head in the sand on this. It's a matter of practicality.

The key to the usefulness of the appearance delta is in the notion that it can be overcome by non-physical attributes. All it takes is a gimmick, and there are all kinds. Being smart can be a gimmick, as can being funny or empathetic. Being an artist, such as musician or painter, can also serve as a gimmick, and being rich and/or powerful works, too. The point is that knowing your delta tells you how much gimmick you need in any given situation if acceptance is what you're looking for. Harsh as it is to say, if you're short, fat, and bald, you're gonna need a lot more gimmick than the guy who's tall, lean, and well coiffed. Now, you can object and refuse to participate in this ever-so-shallow game of human interaction, but you should do so at your peril.

As for me, I do what I can with what I have. I stay in shape and I try to look presentable when I'm in situations where acceptance among folks in the non-long-term relationship category will be of benefit. I pay attention to what I wear and how I carry myself. I estimate my delta and decide which kind and how much gimmick I want to employ. Shallow? You bet. Does it work? Yup. However, when I'm around members of the long-term relationship group, I'm less concerned about appearance. I don't care if my hair is messed up and I opt for flip-flops and t-shirts instead of nicer clothes. And I don't bother with gimmick; I'm just myself. That's the beauty of the inner circle - you can rise above the bullshit and just live.

At the end of the day, we all want to be accepted. We all want to be in on the inside joke. And as much as we'd all (especially those who have a high delta) like it if acceptance was strictly a function of character, it just isn't, at least not enough to sustain us. What can start as a relationship founded on looks or looks plus gimmick can turn into anything but. To close ourselves off to these opportunities simply limits the amount of acceptance we'll enjoy in life. This doesn't mean that we long for acceptance so much that we pursue it indiscriminately. That's a recipe for disaster. It only means that we play the shallow game to get our feet in the door and then let our criteria for separating long-termers from non-long-termers kick in. It ain't pretty, but it works.


Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Wow. Almost 24 hours and no responses. It's almost nostalgic - takes me back to those days when I felt like Costner in Field of Dreams, *before* he met James Earl Jones.

So what gives? I *know* none of you have ever read anything like this, so let me have it. Am I truly insane? Please don't call child protective services. I promise to pay full price at Best Buy. I promise.

2/11/2005 09:42:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

No - it's just that your description is obvious and your prescription, hard. I remember showing up at job interviews hideously uncomfortable and ill-at-ease in shoes that hurt my feet and back (filter #1 - if you can't wear the shoes, you're too big a wimp to get the job), makeup running down my face (ditto), etc, and was totally thankful when standards changed. Success books point out that even backroom geeks need to put up this sort of front, which means our Caveman HR people are actually de-selecting for the sort of people they need! If you have a solution to this, every business website in the world would want to know.

2/12/2005 11:13:00 AM

Blogger drumgurl said...

Yes, yes, I agree with your post! I wrote a report on the subject in high school, and it has helped me out as far as being taken seriously.

I don't remember my sources, but this is what I learned. Women who are attractive in the "babe" sort of way have an easier time getting first-level jobs. But once they climb the ladder, their babe factor becomes a hindrance. The most successful women are attractive in a non-babe way. They tend to be tall, slim, and have short, dark hair. They are not slobs, nor are they ugly. They just aren't going to be on Baywatch anytime soon.

For me, I have the tall, slim thing going on, but I have long, blonde hair. I'm also fairly busty. I'm too scared to cut off all my hair at this point (I've had long hair since I was 2-years old). So my strategy is that I play down the babe factor in job interviews. I pull my hair back sleekly and wear a suit that doesn't emphasize my bust.

The blonde thing is harder to overcome. My professors don't take me seriously at all. But because I'm aware of this, I take extra care in the way I speak and carry myself. It definitely helps.

I don't think recognizing this makes me less of a feminist. My problem with the advice goddess's essay wasn't that she recognized this stuff; it was that she blamed realationship problems on feminists. I also think our beauty-obsessed hussie culture is a little over the top sometimes. In my experience, I've attracted the most good men when my face and hair look good, but I'm dressed very low-key.

2/12/2005 11:25:00 AM

Blogger drumgurl said...

Just to clarify-- I was responding to EC, not anonymous.

2/12/2005 11:27:00 AM

Blogger Michael Gersh said...

Redneck, you make a good point. The long hair is sexy, but not businesslike. As an employer, I can tell you that the truly serious women have no time for long hair. Attractive is great, just take a look at Carly Fiorina sometime - arguably one the most powerful businessmen ever, and a woman to boot - and a babe, at fifty. But short hair is necessary. Not to please anybody, but to allow you to do your job, and be accepted by the other guys.

What women usually fail to appreciate is that, to ascend to the upper ranks of business takes an awful lot of time. That long hair takes you at least two, and probably more like five hours every week. What a businessman needs to do is take a shower every day. The girl with long hair will not wash it every day, and starts to have an unwashed look before long. Unwashed doesn't make it. Successful women are more like men, and wash their hair every morning. They need a doo that can be brushed back in a minute or two. It might seem nitpicky, but if you are serious about a career in business, you will have to lose the hair.

2/12/2005 02:45:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

I don't have any experience with working for a big corporation or even working in an office. I work in a male dominated profession, so male dominated that I am one of only a handful of women doing this work. I am a cabinetmaker and I 've been doing it all my life. Check out my website, www.auntaliceswoodshop.com

I started at twenty something. For me my looks have played a part in what I do. Most people (I think) would think a woman who is a cabinetmaker would be sort of big and manish. I'm not and I think a lot of people are shocked when they see a cute woman come to their door to measure a job. But I also exude a professionalism which overcomes their scepticism about whether or not I am capable.

I do wear my hair short now just because I'm not that great with a blow-dryer and no one sees me when I work anyway. But I clean up good.

For me the most dramatic change in considering my own looks was when my daughter turned into a babe. I would be walking with her in a parking lot and some guy my age would be checking her out. I had two reactions. One...I wanted to slap him and say "HEY, she's only sixteen!!! Stop that!" the other was to think "HEY! What about me???"

My gimmick is being smart and working my ass off.

2/13/2005 11:14:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Yeah, there's no question that the more a female exudes sexuality, the less likely she is to engage the intellectual curiosity of a male. His genes take over, kicking in his sexually-oriented emotions, and he's actually hindered from thinking as clearly as he otherwise might. See recent post, "You Animal You" for the cognitive science that backs this up.

This is where I have problems with our young females. Yes,they look amazing in their wanna-be stripper get ups, but they are setting themselves up to be ill-equipped to deal effectively with males when looks are not factored into the equation. One day, their looks will fade, and they won't be pegging the male's lust meter. The usual feeling of acceptance they feel will not be there, and it'll hurt. And if too much time has gone by, they'll be interpersonally crippled.

Hollywood is the most visible example of this phenomenon. There is a world where looks, more than anything else, set the interpersonal tone. Those who happen to be hot enough to get attention there often become addicted to the ease by which life comes to them. They, therefore, have no incentive to take the time to become worthwhile human beings (on an interpersonal level), the kind of people who recognize that the best things in life are deep, concurrent relationships. When the looks fade, reality hits like a ton of bricks. Reaction: cosmetic surgery galore and anything that will keep the articifial light on them bright enough to deter their attention from the fact that, without their looks, they're nothing. Anyone seen "The Surreal Life" on VH1?

So Alice - I'd be worried about my daughter if she was a babe. I'd pound it into her head that she *could* trade successfully for a long time strictly on her looks and that good things would come her way as a result. However, to do so would be to ignore the emotional and intellectual development that is so key during the late adolescent years. Of course, being the with-it gal you are, I'm sure you've been schooling her on this all along. Let's hope she's listening.

On another note - consider the opposite end of the spectrum - people who have a delta as big as a 747. I remember reading about Gwynneth Paltrow when she walked around in the fat suit she wore in Shallow Hal. It made her so upset, so the article said, because she would literally go through an entire afternoon and have people doing the exact opposite to her than she was used to. Instead of stealing glances at her, folks were looking away, pretending that they never even saw her. Crushing. Now consider someone in that physical condition who manages to get interpersonal acceptance anyway. It's like climbing a social mountain. Very impressive. Too bad, like Chris Farley, they usually can't get over what's always in the backs (or stems) of the minds of the people around them.

2/13/2005 02:28:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

"So Alice - I'd be worried about my daughter if she was a babe. I'd pound it into her head that she *could* trade successfully for a long time strictly on her looks and that good things would come her way as a result."

I must admit that I am proud of the way my daughter looks. Why? I guess I think she was able to avoid some of the slings and arrows which come at you when you are not pretty. Also her good looks were somehow a reflection on me. Shallow? yes, but something I did indulge in ( but not too much).

She has suffered already because she found out early how good looking she is. She has relied on this to cover up some of her insecurities and not deal with life. As a twenty one year old, living on her own and having to work while going to school (I haven't given her her education carte blanche) she has had to learn to deal with the world in new ways. She has had to deal with roommates who don't pay their rent on time and don't do the dishes. She has had to abandon her sweet little blond personality and stand up for herself and (Oh my God!) realize that people might not like her some times.

She needs to do this because as you point out, looks don't last forever and at the end of the day they really don't amount to much.I talk to her all the time about growth, personal growth, and she is very interested and involved in the process.

I was thinking about exceptionally good looking men and I realize I don't tend to like them. I don't like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Richard Gere. I think men who are too good looking aren't interesting. I'm more the Kevin Bacon type. Maybe that's because I'm not the Elizabeth Hurley type and I know there's no chance in hell I could ever snag one of those hunks. Also, what are the chances of keeping a guy like that when there are so many women who adore them?

I think another gimmick which is very effective is being unusual. The kids who can't make the first or second cut in the popularity wars will often adopt the "Goth" look or whatever iteration of that is current.

I've told my daughter to go for the geeks.. the ones's with a sense of humor They are the ones who will end up being the best partner. Someone who has had to actually think. Someone who she doesn't have to fight for the bathroom mirror.

And then there is this....age. Have you ever noticed that it is a crime to get old? Have you noticed that there are no fifty year old women with gray hair? Well beyond our capability to reproduce women and men are expected to have sex appeal. But you do need to careful about that four hour erection.

2/13/2005 05:09:00 PM

Blogger analogee said...

"So what gives? I *know* none of you have ever read anything like this, so let me have it."

- a fairly impertinent claim. How do you 'know' that, by the way?

But, I guess I could say I've never read anything exactly like it. Certainly people are aware that we get different treatment based on how we look; that fact has been covered almost incessantly by the media, as if we couldn't figure it out for ourselves.

The part I like in your analysis is what we do about it. If we react so as to, in effect, 'dumb down' our appearance, so that we never get any opportunities based on appearance, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot. Good or bad, in order to achieve our goals, it seems like we on occasion have to ask for something from people in some sort of power over us. They often seem to pride themselves on an ability to make snap judgments about people. This disturbs me greatly, when I hear them express it. The ability is mostly something they believe they have, not something real, although I suppose an executive who meets dozens of people every week probably has to start making probabilistic assessments of people, even if it allows the possibility of significant errors occurring. I tend to view myself as a slow-starter; for example, I impress my employers, but it always seems to take months, if not years, to really get in the groove. Others seem to be able to come in on a whirlwind of enthusiasm, but almost always disappoint in the long run.

Anyway, an almost cynical exploitation of the flaws of society, and a healthy self-awareness, seems to be a pretty cool way to go about life. If we do pretty ourselves up to make a good initial impression, at least we don't have to believe it really makes a difference to our real abilities.

I've developed a sort of cynical theory about why appearance matters, to the degree it can be manipulated by ourselves (i.e. we can't do much about general 'robustness' of appearance, or height, etc., but we can comb our hair, choose our shirts, and decide whether to wear a tie). How does this fit into your theory, EC? The part about choosing 'healthy' appearance makes some sense, but why choose somebody who is willing to, shall we say, suck up, by wearing a particular style of clothes that he or she otherwise would not?

My theory is that it selects out people who are independent thinkers. And, in the vast majority of cases, employers are most definitely NOT looking for independent thought, despite the blurbs in the employment ads.

gotta work on income taxes now. I'll think about it some more to see if I can articulate it better.

2/13/2005 05:11:00 PM

Blogger analogee said...

Gotta add one more, for alice. You sure sound like somebody I'd like to have in my circle of friends. Your web site is impressive, but I especially like the thought process you use to approach life. I've had to come to similar conclusions over a long, difficult intellectual journey. And, I'm still too fearful to start my own business, although I'm increasingly thinking about it. Somehow, you licked that one.

I was just emailing one of my friends and he's concerned about raising $200k to pay for the college education of 4 kids. Like you, my parents didn't pay for my education, so maybe I'm biased, but I think somebody ought to be getting an education because he or she wants it, and sees the value in it. Best way to assess whether someone sees the value in something is to see if he or she is willing to pay for it, in some manner at least.

2/13/2005 05:19:00 PM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

"- a fairly impertinent claim. How do you 'know' that, by the way?"

Part tongue in cheek, part serious. If *anyone* knows of anyone who is writing my kind of stuff, I need to know about it. I'm positioning myself to the literary industry as one who puts a practical self-help polish on some of the most relevant contemporary science. If I'm just another me-too, mediocre, coffee-shop philosopher (where is meph these days?), then my whole "gimmick" isn't exactly original.

2/13/2005 06:26:00 PM

Blogger Troubleshooter said...

There's something to be said for having at least a few other people out there on the same page as you. You can see at least that others are going in a similiar direction. It also gives you access to some collaborative resources and a way to also prevent doing too much overlapping research.

2/13/2005 08:01:00 PM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

"The part I like in your analysis is what we do about it."

Yes, that's it. That's what I'm up to here. I think many folks, if not most thoughtful ones, are aware of how things are, so to speak. For whatever reason, they've picked up on the essence of the human drama. They can put their finger on the source of some serious social problems. However, what I think is usually missing is the deeper level of understanding that illuminates useful solutions.

It isn't enough to know that many people are focused on status. It isn't enough to know that males and females approach life and sex differently. And it isn't enough to know that appearances play a huge role in our lives. These are phenomena that govern much of what happens between humans, but it doesn't always have to be this way. And sometimes, however, it does.

The key to the enlightened caveman concept is the pragmatism that comes with it. It is naive to simply adopt a stance on these recurring themes in human behavior. It doesn't make sense, in my view, to take an ethical stance on appearances that works in some cases, but does not in many others.

We could decide that we will consciously put aside any concern for appearances when we deal with people - all people. And we could decide that anyone who demonstrates the tendency to consider appearances too much should be ignored, or at least be offered no influence in our lives. However, given the difference between an inner circle and society at large, this is only a half solution. As we maneuver our way in and out of our inner circle, we will find that our strategy fails to meet our objectives. We'll still feel the sting of unmet expectations.

No, understanding the depth of our human proclivities - where they come from, how influential they are (regardless of our intentions), and how prevalent they are in society - helps us to adopt strategies that work, strategies that make our journey through life more comfortable and more rewarding.

This is the real value of science. I just don't think many people are staking out the ground between the ivory tower and Main Street. That's what I'm trying to do.

2/13/2005 11:00:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

Thanks, Analogee for the props. I wasn't sure we'd ever get along. I'm the one who doesn't think Social Security is welfare.

"No, understanding the depth of our human proclivities - where they come from, how influential they are (regardless of our intentions), and how prevalent they are in society - helps us to adopt strategies that work, strategies that make our journey through life more comfortable and more rewarding."

Before it gets more comfortable, I think it takes some pretty ruthless self-examination. It's a rare individual who can be totally honest (there's that word again) with themselves.

"No one talks about their feelings anyway without dressing them in dreams and laughter. I guess it's just to painful, otherwise"
Jackson Browne
(before he beat up on Daryll Hannah)

2/14/2005 12:10:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Oh yes, I'm not saying it's easy. I am, however, saying that it's worth it.

2/14/2005 01:59:00 AM

Blogger analogee said...

"I wasn't sure we'd ever get along. I'm the one who doesn't think Social Security is welfare."

Yeah, I remember. Disagreements are no problem for me, as long as both parties maintain some semblance of civility and intellectual honesty. In this case, I figure a reasonable person might make a distinction between SS and more typical 'welfare' programs. I don't, but it's something that lies on a continuum, not a sharp differentiation.

2/14/2005 04:30:00 PM


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