Why Are Smart People Ugly? The 2011 Explainer Question of the Year

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 10 2012 6:52 PM

Why Are Smart People Usually Ugly?

An answer to the Explainer's 2011 Question of the Year.

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So, getting back to the original question, the bulk of the evidence suggests that smart people are not "usually ugly." In fact, the opposite seems to be true: Either smart people are more beautiful than average, or dumb people are more ugly (or both). And while no facial features within the normal range could ever be that useful as a predictor of intelligence, people can perform better than you’d expect from random chance using nothing more than a head shot.

All of which leaves one great, unanswered question. If smart people tend to be good-looking, that might explain the halo effect. But what led our questioner to get things backward and assume that smart people were ugly? And why are there so many like-minded others, asking the same question—or its inverse—around the Internet? (Here's one, and one more.) Aren't we all familiar with the archetypical nerd, who is both ugly and smart? At the opposite end, what about all those beautiful, airheaded women and beefy, brainless men we see on television? Could the person who wrote in with the 2011 Question of the Year be succumbing to a bias that hasn't yet been documented in the lab—a sort of halo effect in reverse, a "horns effect," perhaps?

Jean-Paul Sartre.
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, 1957

STF/AFP/Getty Images.

Ugly geniuses aren't uncommon in history, of course, and while these anecdotes tell us nothing about the population as a whole, the memory of people who were famously hideous and brilliant might have an outsize influence on our judgments. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, was short, bespectacled, and wall-eyed. ("I cannot even decide whether [my face] is handsome or ugly," says one of his characters in Nausea. "I think it is ugly because I have been told so.") Ancient sources tell us that the great philosopher Socrates had thinning hair, flared nostrils, widely-spaced eyes, a thick neck, slobby shoulders, and a pot belly. Ludwig van Beethoven was ugly and smelled bad; Abraham Lincoln's face struck the poet Walt Whitman as being "so awful ugly it becomes beautiful."

In addition, Kanazawa points out that a closer look at the data reveals an interesting fact: The very ugliest people in his dataset are dumber on average, but they also tend to be the most diverse when it comes to intelligence. That means that if you're at the low end of the spectrum for looks, you're more likely than anyone else to be at one extreme end for IQ (either very dumb or very smart). If that's the case, then it might provide another reason why Sartre and Socrates types stick out in our minds. We know (consciously or not) that ugly people tend to be a little dim; but at the same time, there are more brilliant brutes running around than we might expect.

For his part, Kanazawa rejects the notion of the horns effect—he doesn't believe the smart-and-ugly stereotype exists at all. (Indeed, it has never been shown in the lab.) Instead, he says, we may be assuming that smart people are nerdy, and that nerdy people tend to lack social skills. Since people with social skills are attractive, there could be an indirect link between at least one kind of "attractiveness" and intelligence. But if you're looking at pure "beauty," as measured by rating photographs or measured facial features, then intelligence and looks go hand-in-hand.

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Bonus Explainer: Why might intelligence and looks go hand-in-hand? There are a few different theories. First, it might be that some common genetic factor produces both smarts and beauty. Or maybe there's a combination of genes that make people both dumb and ugly. Kanazawa thinks it's the former, arguing that intelligent men have tended to rise to the top of the social hierarchy and select beautiful women as their mates. Their offspring, contra George Bernard Shaw's supposed quip, would have had both traits together.

Another theory holds that certain environmental factors in the womb or just after birth can produce both facial disfigurements and cognitive impairments on one side, or facial symmetry and high intelligence on the other. A third suggests that attractive children are treated better, and receive more attention from their caretakers and teachers, which helps to nurture a sharper mind. It's also possible that smart people are better able to take care of themselves and their looks.

Explainer thanks Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics, Joshua Knobe of Yale University, Alina Simone, author of You Must Go and Win, and Leslie Zebrowitz of Brandeis University.

*   *   *

Good news: After years of hiding out in the Explainatorium like a banished superhero, answering submitted questions from deep inside the fortress, the Explainer has decided to soar out into the world, pen in hand, to spread peace and understanding among the column's faithful.

And so we present a new, occasional feature on Slate: the Explainer House Call. Do you have a family disagreement over some fact or pseudo-fact? Are you stuck in an endless argument with an annoying co-worker or a friend? Have your attempts to Google your way out of it only pushed you both into the filter bubbles of the Internet? Worry no more: The Explainer will be your arbiter and your savior, an avenging angel of argument, slinging thunderbolts of pure reason and drenching your squabbles in the heavy rain of explanation.

How does one qualify for this personal Explainer service? To get a house call, and have the Explainer resolve your special beef in Slate, you must first gain the support of your peers. What factual matter has been driving you and your friend/spouse/coworker bonkers in recent weeks? Post a short summary on our Facebook page or Tweet us the question with the hashtag #ExplainerHouseCall. Then we'll ask the members of Explainer Nation to vote for the dispute that's most deserving of the Explainer's attention.

(Winners: Please note that the Explainer will not actually visit your house.)

Correction, Jan. 12, 2012: The original overstated the magnitude of the results of the Ohio and Pittsburgh studies.

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