Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eye of the Beholder

by Sheila Connolly

Sandy is recovering from successful knee surgery which makes it hard for her to sit at her computer for long, so she asked me to fill in.

Sandy recently pointed out an interesting article that appeared in the New York Times: "For Crime, Is Anatomy Destiny?" (May 11, 2010), by Patricia Cohen. In it, the writer discusses whether physical attributes are correlated with the likelihood of committing (or being convicted) of a crime. There are studies currently being carried out by economists (why not psychologists, one might ask), and these suggest that certain physical traits are associated with criminal activity, namely:

–height: short men are apparently 20-30% more likely to end up in prison


–physical attractiveness

This last one is certainly a loaded issue, because nowhere does the writer indicate what the standard for attractiveness is. Who gets to decide who is beautiful and who is ugly?

In any case, economists have already observed that in the labor market, height is directly related to salary (every inch of additional height means nearly 2% in greater earnings), beauty (employees rated beautiful earn 5% more per hour than an average-looking person; those rated "plain" earn 9% less than average–can someone tell me what the different between "average" and "plain" is?), and obesity. Sad to say, the last seems to apply primarily to white women.

The standard determinants such as education, experience, and productivity are not enough to explain the observed variation in wages. If you're still wondering how we jump from employment to crime, apparently crime can be considered an "alternative labor market."

So the bottom line is, someone who is overweight, unattractive or short is more likely to commit a crime.

Of course there are many other factors–health, social conditions, genetics, upbringing, and psychology–that affect criminal behavior, and I'm not going to discuss them all. What intrigued me about this whole discussion is one of those curious bits of serendipity: in a used bookstore a couple of weeks ago I happened to pick up a copy of Phrenology: New Illustrated Self Instructor, dated 1868. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, phrenology was a popular 19th-century theory that personality traits of a person can be determined by observing the shape of the skull (the skull conforms to the brain beneath, where traits manifest in specific, consistent areas). It is now considered a pseudoscience.

In light of the recent interest, I had to take a look at the book's section on Destructiveness, which is as close at the authors (O.S and L.N. Fowler, Practical Phrenologists) come to criminal inclination. I will say that the most of the slender volume is relentlessly cheerful and upbeat about the human condition; the Destructiveness section takes up all of two pages.

The header for the section on Destructiveness includes "Extermination, Indignation, disposition to Break, Crush, and Tear Down, the Walk-Right-Through-Spirit (don't you love it?)," as well as "Perversion–wrath, revenge, malice, disposition to murder, etc."

The authors describe the cranial characteristics that may suggest destructive behavior. According to their theory, animal propensities reside at the sides of the head, between and around the ears; ergo, brutes have little top-head. Destructiveness is located over the ears, "so as to render the head wide in proportion." Very wide and round heads indicate strong animal and selfish propensities.

For balance, I also looked at the section on "Beautiful, Homely, and Other Forms." There the authors stated:

"...shape is as character, well-proportioned persons have harmony of features and well-balanced minds; whereas those, some of whose features stand right out, and others fall far in, have uneven, ill-balanced characters, so that homely, disjointed exteriors indicate corresponding interiors, while evenly-balanced and exquisitely formed men and women have well-balanced and susceptible mentalities...and the more beautifully formed the more exquisite and perfect the mentality...those naturally ugly-formed are naturally bad-dispositioned."

Phrenology survived into the twentieth century, and even though neurological science has revealed much about the physical structure of the brain, it persists here and there–maybe even among those curious economists. Does appearance–as perceived by society–dictate character? Which comes first, physical form or behavior?

To add another twist, Edgar Allen Poe wrote an article about phrenology entitled "The Imp of the Perverse" for Graham's Magazine in July 1845. In it he proposed to add a principle of Perverseness, which prompts individuals to "act for the reason that we should not." He went on to say:

"I am not more sure that I breathe, than that the conviction of the wrong or impolicy to an action is often the one unconquerable force which impels its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of analysis..."

Just in case, writers, make sure your villains are ugly, with large, round heads. And of course your heroes and heroines are all tall, slender, and beautiful.


RhondaL said...

Interesting. So, we never really leave high school? ;) Ack! Perish the thought!

Maybe that's why my villain is very attractive? Ha! "Take that -- you pesky pretty people."

I think I need more caffeine...

Anonymous said...

I do find myself looking for certain beavior to go with specific physical traits. I don't know if it's because of conditioning or experience. Now I know to watch myself.

Julia Buckley said...

Too strange. But I thought phrenology had been dismissed long ago as a horrifying sort of profiling and was no longer considered a "respectable" science?

Barb Goffman said...

Hi, Sheila. Maybe the article goes into more detail on this point, but it seems a jump to say that folks who are short, fat, and/or ugly are more likely to commit crimes. Perhaps they are more likely to be accused of crimes and/or convicted of crimes because of bias. Note that I have no idea if this is correct, but based on the information provided, it could be just as likely.

Martha said...

Barb Goffman made my point. We don't know if the real issue is arrest and conviction or the commiting of crimes. That NYTimes article didn't name the paper, authors nor periodicals the paper was in.

L.J. Sellers said...

Fascinating information. Although there have been a few good-looking sociopaths along the way (Ted Bundy).

Sheila Connolly said...

Obviously what I said just skims the surface, but I'd bet that many of us have been victims of the kind of discrimination the economists described--the taller man, or the prettier woman, gets the job and the bigger salary.

As far as I know, phrenology has no scientific basis, hence the label "pseudoscience."

I was interested in this whole subject as a writer. I too have written villains who were nice to look at--but is that just pandering to the convention? Do we all assume the bad guys are short and ugly, therefore a tall handsome man couldn't possibly have done it?

Think about it. You're walking down the street and someone approaches going the opposite direction. Who are you more likely to trust?

Anonymous said...

you are a slow walker,but I never walk backwards.