January 16, 2005

Beautiful People

The great Slate debate between Malcolm Gladwell (of Blink fame) and James Surowiecki (of The Wisdom of Crowds fame) rocks, it really does, but here Gladwell protests much too much:
I was recently horrified to learn that selective colleges in this country (I grew up in Canada) sometimes require applicants to send in photographs of themselves. Can anyone give me any possible justification for that?
Now Gladwell wrote a whole book about rapid cognition, and the use and abuse of those instant perceptions that people form. And surely making a rapid judgment on a person, based on a single photograph, will lead to some wrong conclusions. At the same time, though, thousands of people throughout that person's life have made similar rapid judgments based on the face, and when summed up, all that rapid cognition often tends to be self-reinforcing—or self-fulfilling. It would not surprise me at all to find that attractive people, on average, tend to be more successful and sociable and creative and intelligent than unattractive people.

Ditto with CEOs. Gladwell laments the fact that CEO's tend to be taller than average, and blames it all on bias. But the bias starts early on—tall folks tend to be cooler in middle/high school, they don't tend to get beat up as much for knowing the answers in math class, they tend to have more confidence, etc. (Believe me: I'm 6'2" now, but in the early, formative years I was painfully, painfully short and saw the business end of a headlock more times than I can recall!) So looking at a persons face or height—or better yet, having a large admissions/hiring committee look at a person's face or height (wisdom of the crowds!)—will probably give you a decent take on how that person interacts with and is received by the world.

Of course, colleges never want success or intelligence along only the standard axes—so there too, in the aggregate, it's worth looking for people who aren't as attractive in the usual way. Odds are these students have lived their lives differently, had abnormal interactions, perhaps benefited by a bit of solitude. It seems horrible to say, but surely you can learn quite a bit here, no?
-- Brad Plumer 3:36 PM || ||