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Attractiveness and Criminal Behavior
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
criminal 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.
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.
and Further Reading
"Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency,"
Criminology 30, no. 1 (1992)
and L. Ramona Howard, "Facial Attractiveness and Juvenile
Delinquency among Black and White Offenders," Journal
of Abnormal Child Psychology 1, no. 2 (1973)
Werner, and Stuart Henry, Criminological Theory: An Analysis
of Its Underlying Assumptions<, Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt
Brace College, 1995
B., The English Convict: A Statistical Study, London: H.M.S.O.,
1913; reprint, Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1972
A., The American Criminal, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1939
A., Crime and the Man, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard
University Press, 1939
B., Deviant Behavior in Defense of Self, New York: Academic
Richard L., et al., "Plastic Surgery on Offenders,"
in Justice and Corrections, edited by Norman Johnston and
Leonard D. Savitz, New York: Wiley, 1978
Cesare, L'uomo delinquente, Milan: Hoepli, 1876; reprint,
Rome: Napoleone Editore, 1971; as Criminal Man, New York:
Putnam, 1911; reprint, Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith,
1972 Reuter, E.B., "Book Review of Earnest A. Hooton's Crime
and the Man," The American Journal of Sociology 45, no.
Michael, Zalman Saper, and Lawrence Breen, "Perceived Attractiveness
and Attributions of Criminality: What Is Beautiful Is Not Criminal,"
Canadian Journal of Criminology 30, no. 3 (1988)
Q., and Richard J. Herrnstein, Crime and Human Nature,
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985
Biological Theories of Criminal Behavior; Body-Type Theories of
Criminal Behavior; Genetic Theories of Criminal Behavior
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