John Oliver did a wonderful segment recently about how horribly the media reports science. Today, I saw a piece in the New York Magazine that illustrated this. In Kids Don't Trust Ugliness, author Cari Romm begins by saying, "Being little doesn't exempt you from being a shallow little jerk."
Let me stop you right there.
Yes, I know that Romm probably did not pick the title or subdeck -- that's typically the editor's job -- but I don't love that everything I've read so far is misleading. The study didn't suggest that kids don't trust ugly people. It's that they trust attractive people more -- which is true in adults, too.
The article goes on to discuss a study by Ma, Xu and Luo that appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:
"A team of Chinese researchers recruited groups of 8-, 10-, and 12-year-olds, with 33 to 34 kids in each group (a similarly-sized group of college students served as a control). These pint-size volunteers viewed a series of 200 unfamiliar faces, categorizing each one as trustworthy, untrustworthy, or neither; a month later, they came back to view the same faces, this time rating them on attractiveness.
Across age groups, the two judgments were closely linked — the more attractive faces, in general, were also considered more trustworthy."
This result isn't surprising, given several other studies on children's perceptions of attractive people -- including one that found that preschoolers prefer more attractive peers as playmates.
But I object to jumping to the conclusion that this alone makes kids shallow, mean, or jerks. Because, first of all -- who's to say that their perceptions are wrong?
There is evidence that more attractive people are, in fact, more trustworthy.
Psychology studies show that nice people often "look" nice, and mean people "look" mean. One reason for this is that the expressions we make most often etch themselves into our faces the more we age.
People who smile a lot get laugh lines; in fact, adults tend to judge people with crows feet (pictured below) to be more intelligent and attractive.
Meanwhile, people who frown a lot begin to take on a bulldog-like appearance:
If you had nothing but a photograph to make an assessment of another human, who would you trust more? Someone who looked happy and nice, or someone who grumpy and mean?
Additionally, many of the things we find attractive in others are hardwired preferences, designed to help us seek out the best possible mates, friends and tribes.
While some beauty standards are dynamic and culturally-determined, there are some traits that are universally considered to be attractive. These traits are all signs of health, youth, power and fertility.
Why do we find these traits so attractive? Because people who didn't, don't exist anymore. They mated with and invested their resources in sick, old, weak and infertile people -- meaning they produced fewer and less viable offspring.
(Moreover, we evolved to find certain traits to be ugly, even repulsive -- this helped contain the spread of infectious disease long before we had germ theory, and prevented people from investing in mates with genetic issues that would impair their offsprings' survival.)
They formed alliances with weaker tribes, and were overcome by those with a preference for stronger allies.
As I wrote in These Specific Traits Will Make You More Charismatic, Starting RIGHT Now, charisma isn't an art -- it's a science. We evolved to find charismatic people to be charismatic! People who exhibit both warmth (e.g., looking nice, seeming to like me) and power (good health, height, strength, resilience, confidence) are people we want to associate ourselves with, because they are the ones who will do the most to ensure our survival.
If they are warm but weak, we can count on them to try to protect and provide for us... but not to succeed.
If they are powerful but cold, we can count on them to protect and provide... just not for us. Because they don't seem especially fond of us.
Going back to the Ma et al. study -- kids are shown a picture and asked to rate trustworthiness. The kids have nothing to go on except for appearance. Of course they trust the attractive people more. They're the ones it makes the most sense to trust.
They're the ones who are more likely to be nice, healthy and powerful.
This heuristic is one that is powerfully ingrained. Even as babies, beautiful things make us feel good. And the thing that makes us feel the most good -- by far-- is an attractive face. Especially an attractive female face.
I would love to see another version of the study in which kids rate the attractiveness and trustworthiness of adults with whom they interact. I think that would tell us more about how children assess trustworthiness than a study focused on a single photo.
Want to know more? Check out:
Oh! And here's that wonderful John Oliver segment I mentioned in the beginning of this post:
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Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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