Monthly Archives: December 2012

Beauty is only skin deep


Is beauty really skin deep?

‘Beauty is only skin deep’ is an idiom used to imply that a person’s character is more important than their physical appearance. The phrase also suggests that beauty refers to physical attractiveness alone, which is only skin deep, and that someone’s beauty and character are not related.Few people would deny that physical attractiveness has a role to play in the early stages of a relationship or just in initial attraction. The importance of physical attractiveness in new relationships has been demonstrated by Walster et al. (1966). They randomly paired men and women for a blind date and measured intelligence, various personality factors and physical attractiveness (decided by four independent judges). They found that only physical attractiveness predicted whether they would want to go out on a second date.

However, this is only in the early stages of meeting someone in which, you could argue, that physical attractiveness is all you can really tell about a person. So does this feature of ourselves also determine how attractive we are and how we are perceived after we’ve known someone for a long time. McNulkty et al. (2008) found that physical attractiveness does also predict the success of marriages to a certain extent. Husbands, who were considered more physically attractive than their wives, reported lower levels of marital satisfaction. Also, relative differences between partners’ levels of attractiveness was important in predicting marital behaviour whereby when the wife was more attractive, both spouses behaved more positively though when the husband was more attractive, they both behaved more negatively in their relationships. This suggests that physical attractiveness is not only important in predicting the success of new relationships but that relative physical attractiveness also plays a role in the success of long-term relationships.

In some ways this is contrary to what we like to believe about ourselves, that we’re not shallow and don’t continue to judge people based on their physical attractiveness after getting to know them. A possible explanation for the continued use of physical attractiveness as an important attribute in judging someone’s beauty is the halo effect. Edward Thorndike coined the term, the halo effect, which is a cognitive bias whereby our judgment of a person’s character can be influenced, unconsciously, by other irrelevant attributes of that person. There are many examples of this robust effect; one particularly relevant example is a study by Landy and Sigall (1974).

They showed that female student’s essays were judged, by male students, to be of a higher quality when the essay included a photo showing the essay writer to be physically attractive rather than unattractive. Perhaps we unconsciously judge people to be nicer, as well as better essay writers, when we consider them to be more physically attractive.

Despite all this, a person’s character does seem to play a role in how attractive we perceive them to be though maybe this is only in extreme cases. If you have a very unpleasant character then no matter how physically attractive you are, the halo effect may be unable to influence someone into believing you’re nice. Physical attractiveness is only skin deep but it does seem to affect our opinion on someone’s inner beauty- so maybe beauty is not as skin deep as we thought.

A leopard can’t change its spots

"Of course the zip is stuck, why do you even bother? You know the rules!"(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

“Of course the zip is stuck, why do you even bother? You know the rules!”
(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

‘A leopard can’t change its spots’ is a phrase often used to suggest that someone’s personality, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend it has. This is a question of whether our personality can change over our lifetime or if it’s an unchanging structure.

Personality is widely defined as characteristics which account for consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaviour. These personality traits are stable over time and across different situations. These definitions suggest that there is truth behind the idiom; that a leopard cannot change its spots. However there is some evidence to suggest otherwise.

There are some extraordinary cases of personality change such as that of Phineas Gage. He was an American railroad construction foreman who, in 1848, had an accident which resulted in a large iron rod being driven through his skull, damaging most of his frontal lobe. Surprisingly, he survived this accident though he lost his inhibitions both socially and emotionally. This case changed the face of neuroscience as it was the first case to suggest that personality and behaviour were specifically localised within the brain.  However, this is a special case; can a leopard change its spots without suffering severe brain damage?

In 2003, Srivastava et al. performed a study that aimed to find out if personality altered in early and middle adulthood. McCrae and Costa’s 5 factor theory of personality states that personality traits arise from biological causes and reach full maturity in early adulthood, around about 30 years old. This implies that there is little or no change on any personality dimension after early adulthood. Haan et al. (1986) believed that social roles, life events and social environments that change during an individual’s life are factors that have an important influence on basic personality traits. Srivastava et al. found a lack of support for McCrae and Costa’s theory and in some cases, evidence that contradicted their theory. They found that the personality trait of conscientiousness showed a major change during early and middle adulthood, particularly early adulthood. This period of life is often when people are beginning jobs and entering into committed relationships, events that are linked to conscientiousness. The personality trait of agreeableness also showed a significant change later in life when adults are typically caring for children. These findings suggest that people’s personality continues to develop well into middle adulthood.

All of these results indicate that a leopard can (and does) change its spots up until middle adulthood as our personalities develop as we experience the major turning points in life. Our spots/personality then becomes more permanent across different situations and through time, that is if you don’t suffer any brain damage…

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