Discrimination (14): Lookism

Lookism means discrimination, stereotyping or prejudice based on how people look, and preferential treatment of the physically attractive, the tall, the non-fat and those with the right skin color. I feel the need to revisit the topic, since a previous post on heightism – one form of lookism – was a complete failure. While trying to make the point that heightism, historically speaking, caused much less harm than other forms of prejudice – such as racial or gender prejudice – I managed to offend a lot of short people, and was scolded for it in comments. In my defense, I wanted to talk about preferential treatment based on a few inches of height difference; I understand perfectly well that there is a stigma attached to very short people. However, it seems that this point didn’t come across and I take full responsibility for that.

So, in order to state things clearly from the start and avoid a similar miscommunication: I agree that lookism is a real and serious form of discrimination imposing real harm on those who suffer from it. How serious compared to other types of discrimination? Let’s just ignore that question for the moment and focus on the topic at hand. “Serious enough” will do.

In general, it helps to understand lookism as a form of beauty bias. Many instances of preferential treatment or discrimination based on the way people look are actually about the perceived beauty or lack of beauty of the targets. That’s true even for heightism, since height is often associated with beauty and lack of it with ugliness. Beautiful people – or, better, people generally considered as beautiful – get a lot of advantages in life. They earn more, even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter and even if they aren’t more intelligent or productive. Finding a job, getting a promotion and getting a loan are some of the things that are easier with good looks. And beautiful people are also better at finding mates and getting elected in democratic elections. I could go on.

Some of these advantages result not from direct discrimination by others who prefer beautiful people. Beauty may result in higher self-confidence, and then it’s self-confidence rather than beauty that convinces others to give beautiful people a job or a promotion. But the fact that beauty comes with self-confidence is probably the result of society’s bias towards beauty. There’s also some evidence that taller people have higher average cognitive abilities, which would mean that a wage premium for height is justifiable and not a form of discrimination. Still, an abilities gap doesn’t rule out lookism, since taller children may be treated preferentially by their parents and educators, giving them a head start. This head start then explains their supposedly higher abilities later in life. Even if rewarded according to their abilities, we’re still talking about discrimination.

While some of the undeserved advantages that go to the beautiful are difficult to correct (we wouldn’t want to regulate mating), others are not, given the right form of anti-discrimination legislation. Some form of correction via legislation is necessary especially when preferential treatment results in violations of equal human rights for some. However, legislation can have some serious drawbacks (see here), so we’ll have to be careful.

More posts in this series are here.

Capital Punishment (46): “Looking Deathworthy”

That’s the provocative title of a new paper showing a correlation between the likelihood of receiving a death sentence and the perception of having a stereotypically Black appearance:

Researchers previously have investigated the role of race in capital sentencing, and in particular, whether the race of the defendant or victim influences the likelihood of a death sentence. In the present study, we examined whether the likelihood of being sentenced to death is influenced by the degree to which a Black defendant is perceived to have a stereotypically Black appearance. Controlling for a wide array of factors, we found that in cases involving a White victim, the more stereotypically Black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.

We already knew that both the race of the victim and the race of the defendant influence capital sentencing. Black defendants are executed more often than they should be in a system that pretends to treat all equally before the law and that ostensibly denies that racism should be allowed to determine judicial outcomes.

Now it seems that there’s a subgroup of African Americans who are treated even worse, namely those people who are perceived to have a stereotypically Black appearance (e.g., broad nose, thick lips, dark skin). People apparently associate those stereotypical physical traits with criminality. No surprise that this bias isn’t limited to capital cases:

Even with differences in defendants’ criminal histories statistically controlled, those defendants who possessed the most stereotypically Black facial features served up to 8 months longer in prison for felonies than defendants who possessed the least stereotypically Black features. (source)

Some more evidence is here. This form of bias has been called colorism, and it has effects way beyond the criminal justice system.

More posts in this series here.

Discrimination (9): The Beauty Bias

Although someone’s looks and attractiveness aren’t explicitly mentioned in human rights law as prohibited grounds of discrimination, we can safely say that the general prohibition on discrimination does apply to discrimination based on appearance, just like it applies to discrimination of people belonging to a certain race, sex, religion etc. This statement may sound extreme – and some will call it the first step on a slippery slope – but I think it’s a justified statement given the fact that appearance based discrimination can be just as harmful as more traditional types of discrimination.

People generally prefer beautiful individuals and express this preference by giving them certain advantages. One symptom of the beauty bias is the beauty premium: in the U.S., and probably in most other countries, an attractive person earns more: the premium is about $250.000 over the course of a lifetime, compared to the least attractive. Monthly averages point to a difference between 10 and 12%, even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter. Daniel Hamermesh (in “Beauty Pays“) found evidence of differences in promotions, risks of unemployment, credit facilities etc.

A number of role-playing, laboratory studies have demonstrated that more attractive men are more often hired, but the laboratory data for women are less consistent. … more attractive men had higher starting salaries and they continued to earn more over time. For women, there was no effect of attractiveness for starting salaries, but more attractive women earned more later on in their jobs. (source)

There’s no reason to believe that beautiful people deserve this kind of advantage since they generally aren’t more intelligent, productive, etc. (although some disagree about productivity). It’s simply the case that people who decide about employment, pay and career prefer beautiful people. Beauty brings along a degree of self-confidence I guess, which may persuade (possible) employers and makes them believe – correctly or not – that with higher self-confidence comes higher productivity. But that isn’t all that’s happening:

even when the experimenters controlled for self-confidence, they found that employers overestimated the productivity of beautiful people. (source)

So it looks like the beauty bias is just that, a bias, much like the bias against women and blacks.

The beauty bias can be measured because a

common standard of beauty does exist. Based on an attractiveness scale of one to five, most people surveyed will come to near agreement on a test subject’s looks, a finding that holds true across all cultures. (source)

By the way, the beauty bias operates in other areas as well. Beautiful candidates are more successful in democratic elections. And ugly criminals face rough justice:

Stephen Ceci and Justin Gunnell, two researchers at Cornell University, gave students case studies involving real criminal defendants and asked them to come to a verdict and a punishment for each. The students gave unattractive defendants prison sentences that were, on average, 22 months longer than those they gave to attractive defendants. (source)

Also:

11 percent of surveyed couples say they would abort a fetus predisposed toward obesity. College students tell surveyors they’d rather have a spouse who is an embezzler, drug user, or a shoplifter than one who is obese. (source)

Of course, earning a little less and having a smaller chance of being elected aren’t the world’s gravest human rights violations. It’s not as if we still banish the ugly from the public square:

In the 19th century, many American cities banned public appearances by “unsightly” individuals. A Chicago ordinance was typical: “Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting subject … shall not … expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense.” (source)

However, the evidence above suggests that beauty does play an important role in many different areas, making the impact of appearance based discrimination potentially large. Hence the obvious question: should ugly people be protected against discrimination? Should there be a law making it illegal to pay people more simply because of their looks? After all, there seems to be no difference between this form of discrimination and more traditional forms. All forms of discrimination impose a disadvantage on a group of people for no other reason than their group membership.

However, legal protections would require a public determination of beauty and ugliness. And they would require the ugly to step forward and claim damages or benefits. That’s stigmatizing, and open to discussion: there is, as stated, a common standard of beauty, but there can still be disagreement on specific cases, especially along the margins. Beauty is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, and if you’re labeled as ugly by some or even by the majority, there may still be others who think the world of you. Including yourself. De gustibus non est disputandum. The same isn’t true for gender, sexual orientation and race (with some caveats for the latter). When governments sanction a universal scale of attractiveness we’re going down a dangerous route because this can ossify opinions about beauty and lead to even more discrimination. And then there’s the issue of self-esteem: would people be willing to apply for official recognition of their ugliness, even if the money is good?

Racism (20): Evidence of Colorism

Colorism is prejudice of or discrimination against other people based on skin color. The concept is different from racism because it’s usually used to describe discrimination within a certain race or ethnic group, based on the tone of skin color, rather than discrimination of an entire race or ethnic group. In general, this means that lighter skin tones are preferred and darker skin is considered less desirable. Lighter-skinned members of a certain race or ethnic group can discriminate against members with darker tones within the same group, but colorism more often means a general social preference for lighter skins.

One cause of colorism may be a traditional and historical preference for light and an abhorrence of darkness, light being good and godly, dark being evil and scary. However, I won’t explore the causes and just limit myself to some examples. There’s the one I mentioned some time ago, and then there’s this one:

Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones received more-lenient sentences and served less time than women with darker skin tones. The researchers found that light-skinned women were sentenced to approximately 12 percent less time behind bars than their darker-skinned counterparts. Women with light skin also served 11 percent less time than darker women.

The study took into account the type of crimes the women committed and each woman’s criminal history to generate apples-to-apples comparisons. The work builds on previous studies by Stanford University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and other institutions, which have examined how “black-looking” features and skin tone can impact black men in the criminal-justice arena. …

Part of the reason may simply come down to how pretty jurors consider a defendant to be, and that being light-skinned and thin (also a factor studied in the research) are seen as more attractive. (source)