Are Beautiful People More Intelligent?
The media widely reported on a study from the Department of Management, London School of Economics and Political Science which found that beautiful people are more intelligent. The researcher identified an association between childrens’ IQ scores and their teacher’s ratings of beauty. A partial list of these news stories with the most interesting titles is given below.
List of Stories
- 1 ABS News Radio: 2011 Study: Beautiful People Have Higher IQs
- 2 Attractive People Have Higher IQ – Study
- 3 Beautiful men, women are more likely to be smarter with high IQs, too: study
- 4 Beautiful people are paid more than counterparts ’because they are worth it
- 5 Beautiful People Really ARE More Intelligent
- 6 Unconvential Wisdom: Beauty and the Brainy
There are many examples of people who lend credence to the ideas promoted in these stories. For example, the former women’s world chess champion Alexandra Kosteniuk (see above) is both a grandmaster and a fashion model. The current number one rated chess player player in the world—Magnus Carlsen has also modeled.
Did you believe this story? Did the examples of the brilliant and beautiful people sway you?
This story is based on some very common types of arguments that are logically flawed and they can be used to persuade people into believing something that is not true. These particular types of arguments have even been used to justify false ideologies such as bigotry and cults. Therefore, it’s worth understanding how to identify this sort of argument so you’re not fooled by it. I suggest that you ask yourself the following questions before you decide to trust something you’ve read.
Problem I: Is the Story Playing to Stereotypes?
The story plays upon the human fraility of stereotypes. Both in fiction and non-fiction, stories about wealth and beauty abound. The idea that beauty and IQ are related promotes a rather common but superficial consumerist value that argues that young men can attract beautiful mates by becoming rich and young women can attract substantial partners by making themselves more beautiful.
This stereotype also indirectly argues that these values are acceptable and will lead to happiness. The stereotype presumes that wealthy men are more concerned with beauty than other qualities and women are only interested in marrying men with money. Although that may be true in some cases, that doesn’t mean it’s universally true. Furthermore, why wouldn’t a man or woman want to have a spouse who is both intelligent and beautiful?
Once you identify stereotypes in a story, you should suspect that the story has quickly moved from the realm of science to unsubstantiated speculation. Unfortunately, the news media frequently sensationalizes science that in the end tends to promote certain ideas or values and give you an accurate picture of what the researcher was trying to convey.
Science has shown that we shouldn’t trust stereotypes. For example, many people may have trusted this story because they believe that wealthy people achieve their wealth through superior intelligence. However, there is no correlation between IQ and wealth!
Another stereotype is that attractive women actually do marry wealthier men. However, that stereotype may not be true. The news stories and the research paper cited no scientific evidence to support this idea and other research suggests that people who are more beautiful tend to marry other beautiful people. There is also scientific evidence that most people marry within their own socio-economic class.
The story also plays into another well-documented bias that people are more likely to trust beautiful people. This story gives us a rationale explanation for our natural bias. It claims we trust beautiful people because they are smart.
Problem II: Is the Story Based on Faulty Assumptions?
A good way to figure out whether you should trust a science news story is to identify the assumptions that the story is making. The news stories that claimed beautiful people are more intellgent typically made one assumption that is patently false! It’s incorrect to assume that a pairing of a beautiful but less intelligent person with a less attractive wealthy person will always result in more beautiful and intelligent children. For example, a genetic analysis might indicate that twenty-five percent of the children would be less attractive like their father and less intelligent like their mother, twenty-five percent would be less attractive and intelligent like their father, twenty-five percent would be less intelligent and beautiful like their mother and only twenty-five percent would be both intelligent and beautiful.
Problem III: Does the Story use an Appeal to Authority?
Another problem with these these news stories was that they quoted experts, cited research and confidently stated that the research had proven that beauty and IQ are related. However, these stories asked you trust the expert without explaining the expert’s reasoning or explain why the research should be trusted. That’s a logical fallacy referred to as an Appeal to Authority. If an expert claims to know something then just like everyone else they need to explain it to you.
For this study, a detailed explanation may have convinced most people that this particular study only generated some interesting hypotheses but it really didn’t prove anything. The news stories did not report that the type of research method used in the Beauty and IQ study would be considered preliminary by most researchers because the methods used to collect data in this research yield data that can be interpreted in different ways.
In particular, the researcher used a method referred to as a correlational study that found there is a tendency for children with higher IQs to be more beautiful. However, such correlations/associations can be interpreted in different ways.
For example, people with more money sometimes spend it on plastic surgery, gyms, personal coaches, expensive diets, nice clothes and orthodontics which make them appear more attractive. Therefore, the researcher’s results could have occurred because wealthy people use their money to make their children appear more attractive. That is, the association between IQ and attractiveness may be illusory! The real correlation may be between wealth and the ability to make one’s children appear to be more attractive!
History shows us that it’s common for people (even scientists and other experts) to believe that it’s reasonable to use associations to support their pre-existing ideas or stereotypes (e.g., the idea that wealthy people are more intelligent). This human tendency has even caused people to justify prejudice and superstition!
For example, some hate groups have argued that an association between ethnicity and illicit drug use proves that some ethnicities or cultures are more supportive of illicit drug use. However, research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Caucasians in poor neighborhoods are just as likely to use illicit drugs as any other ethnic group. The reality is that poorer neighborhoods have bigger illicit drug problems and minorities are more likely to live in these neighborhoods. Therefore, the association between ethnicity and illicit drug use is illusory. Similarly, the association between beauty and intelligence could also be illusory.
A subtype of the Appeal to Authority is the Appeal to Big Numbers. Several reporters claimed this study could be trusted because it included thousands of subjects. Big numbers can be used to statistically verify that the association wasn’t simply the result of chance but big numbers don’t correct for logical problems or rule out the other problems cited in this article.
Problem IV: Does the Study Really Measure What it Claims to Measure?
Another way to assess the quality of a research study is to determine the validity of its measurements. That is, you should ask “How did the researcher define beauty and intelligence?”
The researcher assessed childrens’ “beauty” by asking teachers to describe their students as either “attractive,” “unattractive or not attractive,” “looks underfed or undernourished,” “abnormal feature,” or “scruffy or slovenly & dirty.” This question in and of itself isn’t a measure of beauty or for that matter anything else. At different points on the scale, it’s measuring cleanliness, how thin one is and abnormality! Using this scale, it’s impossible to completely sort out beauty from other factors. For example, how would a teacher rate a student if the teacher considered the child to be underfed, beautiful and filthy?
Another problem is that the researcher assessed childhood beauty when his hypothesis relates to adult marriage. Beautiful children may not always become beautiful adults.
It’s also said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Do you trust that school teachers can accurately judge beauty?
The researcher used an IQ test to measure intelligence. However, most IQ tests are not indicators of pure genetic intelligence. In fact, most experts believe there are between four and twelve different types of intelligence. The IQ test the researcher used includes subscales that assess a type of intelligence that can be improved upon by hard work or a good education. Obviously, you can’t use an IQ test that in part measures acquired intelligence to make strong assertions about genetically inherited intelligence.
Every decade or so someone promotes the idea that African Americans’ have lower IQ’s than other racial groups. The author of the The Bell Curve has stated that his book does not support such claims. However, others have argued that the book has been used to promote the idea that African American’s have lower IQs because it cites studies where the average IQ of African American’s was slightly lower than the IQ of other ethnic groups. Those who made this argument frequently used the sort of false logic that was used in some news reports about the relationship between beauty and intelligence.
For example, similar to news media stories about beauty and intelligence, people who read the Bell Curve often assumed that IQ is a single quality, failed to adequately consider non-genetic influences on IQ test scores such as quality of education, quality of health care, nutrition, the multidimensional nature of intelligence, and cultural and environmental interactions between learning and natural ability. However, researchers have demonstrated that IQ tests can be influenced by all of these factors.
Problem V: Does the Story Rely Upon Andedotal Evidence?
Andedotal evidence from a few examples (e.g., the beautiful chessplayer examples given above) is a very weak form of evidence because there could be many counter-examples. Therefore, andedotal evidence is never considered to be scientific evidence.
Most people have information in their own experience to suggest that beautiful people are not more intelligent. If you went to college, did your professors dazzle you with their good looks? Do those high IQ people in your workplace’s computer department appear especially attractive to you?
The researcher who published the study didn’t make the mistake of using anecdotal evidence to bolster his arguments. However, many journalists who reported on the results of this study used anecdotes in an attempt to bolster the scientist’s claims.
Problem VI: Is the Story Attempting to Prompt Certain Values over Others?
As noted above, these news stories appeal to our superficial stereotypes. When we see that sort of argument it’s usually a good idea to ask is this story really about science or is it really attempting to promote certain values?
Superficially, the two geniuses pictured here don’t appear to have much in common. They came from different social strata and there was a wide age gap. Nevertheless, they worked together to achieve a common goal.
The wealthy and beautiful Countess Ada Lovelace (see above) studied math until the time she published the first scientific article describing how to build and program a computer.
However, historians generally agree that the noted engineer, Charles Babbage (see above), was the individual who first came up with the idea for a computer but he would not have been able to fully articulate his idea or complete the project without Ada’s help.
Perhaps what these successful collaborators had in common wasn’t their beauty or their innate intelligence but their work ethic and their willingness to seek help, without prejudice, when they needed it.
Here’s another picture of future grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk looking very determined when she was a bit younger. Perhaps we should suspect that she is correct when she claims that her determination and not her beauty is what made her a world champion!
by Todd Miller