Why Are Handsome Men Such Jerks?

The power of mathematical thinking.
June 3 2014 10:13 PM

Why Are Handsome Men Such Jerks?

Male Model.
A model poses for a portrait during a casting call in Sydney.

Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a good novel. We know it’s a good novel because lots of people like it, and because it won the Man Booker, one of the biggest prizes in English-language literature. But here’s the funny thing. After the book won the prize, people didn’t like it as much! Its rating on the site Goodreads took a sudden plunge. And it wasn’t the only book to suffer that fate. A recent paper by sociologists Balázs Kovács and Amanda J. Sharkey studied a group of 32 English-language novels that won major literary awards. After the prize, their ratings on Goodreads dropped from an average of just under 4 to about 3.75. A group of comparably rated novels that were short-listed for prizes, but didn’t win, showed no such diminution.

When a book wins a Booker, that ought to make us think it’s good. Every sociologist—OK, every human being over the age of 12—knows we like things more when we hear that other people like them. So what explains the Booker backlash?

Advertisement

At least in part, it’s a quirk of statistics called Berkson’s fallacy. If you know one thing about correlation, it’s that correlation is not the same as causation. Two variables, like height and math scores in school kids, may be correlated, even though being good at math doesn’t make you taller, or vice versa. What’s going on is that older kids are both taller and better at math. Correlation can arise from a common cause that drives both variables in the same direction.

But that’s not the only way misleading correlations can pop up. Joseph Berkson, the longtime head of the medical statistics division at the Mayo Clinic, observed in 1938 that correlations can also arise from a common effect. Berkson’s research was about medical data in hospitals, but it’s easier to explain the phenomenon in terms of the Great Square of Men.

Suppose you’re a person who dates men. You may have noticed that, among the men in your dating pool, the handsome ones tend not to be nice, and the nice ones tend not to be handsome. Is that because having a symmetrical face makes you cruel? Does it mean that being nice to people makes you ugly? Well, it could be. But it doesn’t have to be.

Behold the Great Square of Men. (And I'd like to note that you can find more stunning hand-drawn illustrations just like this one in How Not to Be Wrong.)

great square of men

Now, let’s take as a working hypothesis that men are in fact equidistributed all over this square. In particular, there are nice handsome ones, nice ugly ones, mean handsome ones, and mean ugly ones, in roughly equal numbers.

But niceness and handsomeness have a common effect: They put these men in the group of people that you notice. Be honest—the mean uglies are the ones you never even consider. So inside the Great Square is a Smaller Triangle of Acceptable Men:

triangle of acceptable men

Now the source of the phenomenon is clear. The handsomest men in your triangle, over on the far right, run the gamut of personalities, from kindest to (almost) cruelest. On average, they are about as nice as the average person in the whole population, which, let’s face it, is not that nice. And by the same token, the nicest men are only averagely handsome. The ugly guys you like, though—they make up a tiny corner of the triangle, and they are pretty darn nice. They have to be, or they wouldn’t be visible to you at all. The negative correlation between looks and personality in your dating pool is absolutely real. But the relation isn’t causal. If you try to improve your boyfriend’s complexion by training him to act mean, you’ve fallen victim to Berkson’s fallacy.

The fallacy works, too, as a driver of literary snobbery. Why are popular novels so terrible? It’s not because the masses don’t appreciate quality. It’s because the novels you read are the ones in the Acceptable Triangle, which are either popular or good. So within that group, the good ones are less likely to be popular, for the same reason the handsomer men are bigger jerks. If you force yourself to read unpopular novels chosen essentially at random—I’ve been on a jury for a literary prize, so I’ve actually done this—you find that most of them, just like the popular ones, are pretty bad. And I imagine if you dated men chosen completely at random from OkCupid, you’d find that the less attractive men were just as jerky as the chiseled hunks. But that’s an experiment I can’t recommend, not even for the sake of mathematical enlightenment.

And now what happened to Julian Barnes is pretty clear. There are two reasons you might have read The Sense of an Ending and rated it on Goodreads. It might be because it’s exactly the kind of novel you’re apt to like. Or it might be because it won the Booker Prize. When a book wins a prize, then its audience expands beyond the core group of fans already predisposed to love it. That’s what every author dreams of, but more frequently read inevitably means less universally liked.

Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and the author of How Not to Be Wrong. He blogs at Quomodocumque.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.