Why Do We Look Down on People Who Look Different? - Deepstash
The Power of Storytelling

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The Power of Storytelling

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Key Points: People Who Look Different Than Us

Key Points: People Who Look Different Than Us

  • People with facial anomalies, such as scars and birthmarks, are assumed to bear negative personal characteristics.
  • This “anomalous-is-bad” facial bias could arise from an evolved pathogen avoidance mechanism or it could be learned by culture.
  • The “anomalous-is-bad” bias appears to be learned culturally and can presumably be unlearned.

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Your Face Matters

Your Face Matters

Faces confer social benefits and costs. People imbue attractive faces with desirable characteristics, like being more trustworthy. These inferences have real-world consequences. For instance, people are more willing to borrow money from lenders with trustworthy faces. Dominance, judged from the faces of West Point cadets, has been linked to the promotions those military personnel would receive decades later.

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The Face Bias

The Face Bias

Taken together, the “right” kinds of facial features can make one appear more trustworthy, can facilitate the pursuit of their career goals, and can even bear on life-or-death situations. If having the “right” kinds of facial features is a good thing, what does this mean for people with the “wrong” kinds of facial features—those that deviate from the norm?

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Penalty For Looking Different

Penalty For Looking Different

People whose faces have anomalous features—like scars, cleft lip and palate, or paralysis—suffer social penalties for looking different. People with anomalous faces are seen as less attractive and less trustworthy than people whose faces lack such features. They provoke implicit and explicit biases and even mistreatment by some viewers, and they trigger brain responses linked to those biases and behaviours.

We call this suite of negative beliefs, biases, brain states, and behaviors the “anomalous-is-bad” stereotype.

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The Source Of The Bias

The Source Of The Bias

We avoid interacting with people whose faces have anomalous features because those features signal the presence of a contagious disease. Since not all facial anomalies are signs of contagion, the anomalous-is-bad stereotype could be the overgeneralization of a mechanism that evolved to keep humans healthy.

Even though most people don’t often interact with individuals whose faces are visibly different, negative cultural messages about facial anomalies could instead be the source of the anomalous-is-bad stereotype.

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The Effect Of Western Culture

The Effect Of Western Culture

Using facial anomalies to signify moral corruption remains a popular device in Western storytelling.  Anakin Skywalker’s physical and moral transformation into Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels, the pockmarked face of the latest James Bond villain, and the Joker’s menacing smile that is quite literally carved into his face represent only a handful of examples. In the movie 

The Lion King, the baddest bad guy is even named “Scar.” Although the average person probably doesn’t have much firsthand experience with facial anomalies, negative tropes about anomalies permeate Western culture.

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WEIRD People

WEIRD People

Both potential routes to the anomalous-is-bad stereotype—as a byproduct of an adaptation for avoiding pathogens, or as a byproduct of cultural learning—are plausible.

How can we tell which one is right? This isn’t just a problem for researchers interested in facial differences—an overreliance on research volunteers from populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) threatens the generalizability of research in psychology and allied disciplines more generally. Even the face photographs researchers use in their studies are often overly-WEIRD.

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The Hadza Hunter-Gatherers

The Hadza Hunter-Gatherers

The Hadza hunter-gatherers’ lives are very different from that of the average person in a materially developed culture. They typically live with 20-30 other Hadza in camps that move location every six to eight weeks as local resources are depleted. The Hadza vary in their exposure to non-Hadza culture, with some having had little to no exposure to the world outside of Hadza land.

A study was conducted in this domain of people, to off-set the effects of WEIRD(research volunteers that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic

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The Study Findings

In contrast to those Hadza with the most exposure to non-Hadza culture, those with the least exposure were equally likely to choose scarred faces as they were to choose typical ones when judging moral character. Since only Hadza with exposure to non-Hadza culture showed evidence of the anomalous-is-bad stereotype, our study suggests that this bias is learned.

Support for the cultural origin of the insidious anomalous-face-is-bad stereotype begets optimism: if the stereotype is learned, then it can also be unlearned.

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CURATED BY

sarahmoren

Jewellery designer

CURATOR'S NOTE

Bias of the visible facial features.

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