beauty skews our judgment -- 9/4/15

Today's selection -- from Model Woman by Robert Lacey. Beauty significantly alters our judgment of people and things:

In 1920 the Psychologist Edward Thorndike, a lecturer at the Columbia School of Education, staged an experiment in which he asked two U.S. Army Air Service commanders who had recently returned from the Great War to evaluate their platoons of airmen according to the attractiveness of their outward appearance -- neatness, voice, physique, bearing, and 'energy.' Then he asked them to assess the same set of aviators according to their 'inner' qualities of personality and character -- among which he included intellect, dependability, loyalty, selflessness, and leadership skills.

"In his seminal paper ''A Constant Error in Psychological Ratings,' Thorndike reported that the aviators who were rated highly on their external qualities were 33 percent more likely to receive favorable judgments from their officers when it came to their supposed 'inner,' psychological qualities, including their potential as future leaders. Physical attractiveness, in other words, embellished these men with added credibility. 'The correlations,' wrote Thorndike, 'were too high and too even.'

The psychologist called this phenomenon the halo effect (or the halo error), and it proved to be the springboard for a succession of modern studies that have sought to analyze the culture of the changing world with such concepts as 'beauty bias,' the 'attractiveness factor,' and 'erotic capital' -- such as teachers giving higher credit to attractive students and jurors assessing the credibility of witnesses on the basis of their looks. Hair dye manufacturers would carry out surveys to demonstrate how different shades of hair commanded different levels of salary according to male preferences --blondes have more funds.

"In the second half of the twentieth century, feminist thinkers would come to critique this monetizing of beauty. They labeled it 'lookism,' and condemned model agencies for encouraging the sexual 'objectification' of women. Yet no such reservations were voiced in the mid-1920s.

" 'Beauty is a greater force in human affairs than steam or electricity, than economics or engineering,' wrote advertising guru Earnest Elmo Calkins, founder of the Calkins and Holden agency, in Atlantic magazine for August 1927. 'In beauty, the sky is the limit.'

"Virtually stone deaf from a childhood attack of measles, Calkins had honed his visual senses the more keenly on what he called 'Beauty -- the new business tool.' In his eyes, the most significant event of 1927 was the fact that General Motors' stylish Chevrolet saloon car had, for the first time, outsold the less-than-beautiful Model T Ford, even though the Chevrolet cost two hundred dollars more. Affluence, he argued, was changing the sensibilities of Americans, who now bought a new car 'not because the old one is worn out, but because it is no longer modern. It does not satisfy their pride.'

"People were starting to define themselves by the look of the goods they chose to purchase, and Calkins cited the immense success of a recent trade show at Macy's where New Yorkers had lined up for hours to study modernistic French furniture in the hope of adding 'style' to every corner of their homes, from parlor to bathroom. 'We demand beauty with our utility,' Calkins wrote, 'beauty with our amusement, beauty in the things with which we live.'

"For all his aesthetic evangelism, the adman had no sentimentality about the role that advertising was coming to play in the creation of purchasing needs -- particularly among the increasing number of emancipated working women. Beauty was a commodity like any other. 'There is behind all these changes,' he wrote, 'simply the desire to sell.' How better to advertise a new car or sofa or perfume than with the help of a pretty model?"


Robert Lacey


Model Woman: Eileen Ford and the Business of Beauty


Harper an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2015 by Robert Lacey


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