Physical Attractiveness and Criminal Behavior

Physical unattractiveness, deformity, and disfigurement have been associated with evil since antiquity. In the Iliad, Homer described the wicked Thersites as possessing thin hair over a “misshapen head,” with one blinking eye and a lame leg. Physiognomy (the “science” of reading personality characteristics into facial features) traces its practice to Homer’s Greece. When Socrates was convicted for heresy and the corruption of youth in the fifth century B. C. , a physiognomist charged that his face betrayed a brutal disposition.
Greek culture embraced the notion that mind and body were interconnected; if a sound mind went together with a sound body, the implication was that a twisted mind resided in a deformed body. Aristotle confirmed this view in his Metaphysics when he reasoned that the essence of the body is contained in the soul. These opinions were ensconced into law in medieval Europe. Among those accused of demonic possession, ecclesiastical edicts interpreted large warts and moles on the skin as physical signs of the entry point of the devil into the soul (Einstadter and Henry 1995).
Secular law directed jurists to convict the uglier of two people who were under equal suspicion for a crime (Wilson and Herrnstein 1985). In an echo of these sentiments some years later, Shakespeare’s Cassius, in Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene II), is judged a dangerous man by his “lean and hungry look. ” The link between unattractiveness and criminal behavior remained alive and well in 20th-century American popular culture.

In his famous comic strip and in the movies it inspired, cartoonist Chester Gould sharply contrasted the square-jawed, clean-cut good looks of detective Dick Tracy with cutthroat criminals like the flat-headed “Flattop,” the pointy-snouted “Mole,” the wrinkle-cheeked “Pruneface,” and the big-bottomed “Pear Shape. ” Hollywood imitated science in Johnny Handsome (1989), a feature film about a robber with grotesque facial deformities who reforms after receiving extensive cosmetic surgery.
Some of the earliest criminological researchers shared this thinking. Physiognomy persisted throughout the 18th century, most notably in the work of Swiss scholar Johan Casper Lavater, whose influential Physiognomical Fragments appeared in 1775. One hundred years later, Italian prison physician Cesare Lombroso published Criminal Man (1876), a famous study that attributed criminal behavior to what he termed “atavism,” an inherited condition that made offenders evolutionary throwbacks to more primitive humans.
By conducting autopsies on 66 deceased criminals, and comparing 832 living prison inmates with 390 soldiers, Lombroso created a list of physical features that he believed were associated with criminal behavior. These “stigmata” included sloping foreheads, asymmetrical faces, large jaws, receding chins, abundant wrinkles, extra fingers, toes, and nipples, long arms, short legs, and excessive body hair-hardly the image of handsome men. The notion that criminal behavior was related to physical anomalies was dealt a severe blow by the publication of Charles B. Goring’s The English Convict in 1913.
This study subjected 37 of Lombroso’s stigmata to empirical testing by comparing 2,348 London convicts to a control group that represented a cross section of young Englishmen. Goring found little support for Lombroso’s arguments, concluding that criminal behavior is caused by inherited feeblemindedness, not physical appearance. Undaunted by these results, Harvard anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton conducted an ambitious 12-year study that compared 13,873 male prisoners in 10 states with a haphazard sample of 3,023 men drawn from the general population, searching once more for physical differences.
Hooton published his findings in The American Criminal and Crime and the Man, both books appearing in 1939. The books attributed criminal behavior to biological inferiority and “degeneration,” ascribing a variety of unattractive physical characteristics to criminals (including sloping foreheads, compressed facial features, drooping eyelids, small, protruding ears, projecting cheekbones, narrow jaws, pointy chins, and rounded shoulders). By the 1930s, however, biological research was rapidly losing favor, as criminologists increasingly argued that social factors alone cause criminal behavior.
Hooton’s research was ridiculed in particular, one sociologist dismissing his findings as comically inept in historic proportions (or “the funniest academic performance… since the invention of movable type” [Reuter 1939]). Hooton was condemned for his circular reasoning: offenders were assumed to be biologically inferior, so whatever features differentiated criminals from noncriminals were interpreted as indications of biological inferiority. Despite the skepticism of many sociologists regarding these attempts to link physical unattractiveness to criminal conduct, self-derogation and general strain theories can explain this relationship.
Self-derogation theory asserts that youth who are ridiculed by peers lose self-esteem and the motivation to conform (Kaplan 1980). General strain theory claims that repeated “noxious,” unwanted interactions produce disappointment, depression, frustration, and anger (Agnew 1992). Both theories see delinquency and crime as means of retaliation that boosts one’s self-worth or vents one’s anger. Certainly, unattractive youths are prime candidates for noxious ridicule that results in low self-esteem and emotional strain.
Only a handful of modern studies have tested the relationships among attractiveness, criminal behavior, and perceptions about crime. Saladin, Saper, and Breen (1988), for example, asked 28 students in one undergraduate psychology class to judge the physical attractiveness of a group of photographs of young men. Forty students in another psychology class were asked to examine the same photographs and then assess the probability that those pictured would commit either robbery or murder.
The researchers found that men rated as less attractive also were perceived to be prone to commit future violent crimes, suggesting that unattractive people are more likely to be branded as criminals. Another study randomly scrambled 159 photographs of young men incarcerated in juvenile reformatories with 134 photographs of male high school seniors (Cavior and Howard 1973). College sophomores in psychology courses were asked to rate the facial attractiveness of these youth.
Significantly more high school seniors were judged attractive than males from the reformatories. In the fascinating policy-oriented research that became the basis for the movie Johnny Handsome, surgeons performed plastic surgery to correct deformities and disfigurements (e. g. , protruding ears, broken noses, unsightly tattoos, and needle track marks from intravenous drug use) on the faces, hands, and arms of 100 physically unattractive men at the time of their release from Rikers Island jail in New York City (Kurtzberg et al. 1978).
These ex-convicts were matched against a control group of equally unattractive inmates released from the jail who received no reconstructive surgery. When the researchers compared recidivism rates one-year later, those who received the surgery had significantly fewer rearrests. Apparently, improved appearance resulted in improved behavior. These research findings are preliminary and suggestive; more definitive studies using better measurements are needed. In particular, future research should relate ratings of physical attractiveness to the self-reported riminal behavior of persons taken from the general population. Such studies would rule out the possibility that unattractive offenders are more likely to appear in jails and reformatories simply due to the prejudices of the police and prosecutors. Nevertheless, existing research hints that the folk wisdom dating back to the ancient Greeks may have some basis in reality. Physical appearance is related to self-worth and behavior; as the adage goes, “pretty is as pretty does. ” When it comes to criminal behavior, the opposite may be true as well.

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