It only takes a hundredth of a second to form an opinion about someone’s intelligence, honesty and friendliness based on their face, skin color, height and weight. How much truth is in such judgments, and how much prejudice?
From a young age we are taught that it is not the clothes that adorn a man, that it is the soul that counts, not the body. But in everyday life, we rarely follow these humanistic principles. When we meet someone for the first time, we rely on our senses and our mind, equipped with cognitive scripts that transform the impressions made by someone else’s appearance into valuable information about his or her character, competence and motivation. However, unlike in the popular song, the eyes can lie, and telling from one’s silhouette and clothing usually leads astray.
The influence of appearance on the evaluation of others began to be intensively studied after World War II. The impetus for this came from the rapid transformation of Western societies. Women, who during the war took over part of men’s jobs, in times of peace did not intend to leave the hard-won job market. The social structure was shaken in turn by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, when representatives of all classes met at the same festivals and demonstrations, and long hair, beards, and flowing robes seemed to blur the differences between them. In the U.S., Pastor Martin Luther King fought against racial segregation (this year marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination), and decolonization led to a wave of migration of young people of different skin color to Western Europe. Despite the fact that people of different sex, skin color, hair, height, body structure and dress passed each other every day at work, on the subway and in restaurants, John Lennon’s dream of a world without prejudice was not going to come true. Stereotypes were reinforcing instead of diminishing. Their power has alarmed sociologists and social psychologists.
The inevitability of pigeonholing
Research on the origins of body stereotypes is dominated by an adaptive stance. Appearance preferences, higher intelligence scores of attractive people, and prejudice against outsiders result from the evolution of our species and the laws of natural selection. We regard good-looking, tall, and strong people as having…