Pretty Smart? Why We Equate Beauty With Truth

Pretty Smart? Why We Equate Beauty With Truth

Jan. 17, 2014 7:43 p.m. ET

With some regularity we hear about the latest beauty-pageant contestant who has responded to a softball of a question with an epic fail of a mistake, a bizarre opinion or an incoherent ramble. There’s the Panamanian contestant who believed that Confucius invented the philosophy of “Confusion,” the Miss Hawaii who described the U.S. only in terms of the “rocky shores” and “sandy beaches” of Hawaii, and the Miss South Carolina Teen USA who explained that Americans don’t know enough geography because too many people can’t afford maps.Ridiculous. But what’s even more ridiculous is that our brains bias us toward believing such people—just because they’re good-looking.

The German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote, “Physical beauty is the sign of an interior beauty, a spiritual and moral beauty.” His belief seems odd if you’ve ever seen a portrait of Schiller: His prominent schnozzola would have knocked him out of the 1788 edition of People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”

In the years since, research has shown that from an early age—in both sexes and across numerous cultures—attractive people are judged to be smarter, kinder, more honest and trustworthy. Obviously, our bias toward thinking that “what is beautiful is good” makes for some bad mating decisions.

In politics, we are also more likely to believe and vote for people who are attractive. Ditto for hiring them. And when it comes to ostensibly blind justice, numerous studies from the 1970s through ’90s found that more-attractive individuals are less likely to be convicted of crimes and, if convicted, receive shorter-than-average sentences for the crime.

Why should this be? Some have suggested that since it is pleasurable to meet someone attractive and someone good and honest, we unconsciously conflate the two. But this convergence of rewarding experiences seems dubious. After all, few of us intermix the pleasure of, say, reading about the triumph of the abolitionist movement with the pleasure of taking a bubble bath and eating a box of Twinkies.

Instead, it seems that the brain confuses the metaphorical and the literal—a fairly common sort of error, because brain regions often multitask. The same region, for instance, is involved in processing physical and emotional pain and in “feeling” someone else’s pain. Another brain region is central to both gustatory disgust (responding to the taste of rotten food with reflexes that make you feel sick to your stomach) and moral disgust (responding to some appalling act by making you feel sick to your stomach).

Work by Takashi Tsukiura and Roberto Cabeza of Duke University shows something similar with looks: The medial orbitofrontal cortex of the brain is involved in rating both the beauty of a face and the goodness of a behavior, and the level of activity in that region during one of those tasks predicts the level during the other. In other words, the brain does similar things when contemplating beautiful minds, hearts or cheekbones. And it assumes that cheekbones tell you something about minds and hearts.

It’s a discouraging finding. But there’s also some good news in this story: The brain can get confused in both directions. In other words, the same neural wiring that gives rise to “What is beautiful is good” also generates “What is good is beautiful.”

In studies by Sampo Paunonen of the University of Western Ontario, heterosexual subjects of both genders viewed pictures of people of the opposite sex, described as having varying degrees of intelligence, independence and honesty. Degrees of independence and intelligence had no effect on their ratings of attractiveness. But people who were described as being more honest were rated as more likable, and the more likable, the more physically attractive.

It seems that things even out in the end. On the one hand, we’re more likely to believe that the earth is flat just because a beauty queen says so. But on the other hand, people are more likely to see that the goodness of Mother Teresa or Gandhi is beautiful.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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