Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ugly Criminals

Until relatively recently, people believed that you could tell alot about a person based on their physical features. Ok, we still probably believe that to some degree, but not in the same way. The formal study of character through features is known as physiognomy, and, back in the day, its practicioners believed that they could point out criminals based on their facial features. Bram Stoker was very into physiognomy, and, as such, Dracula possesses most of the features of the physiognomist's "criminal man" -- unibrow, high forehead, ... (I know all this because I wrote a paper about if for my Gothic Lit class as an undergrad.)

Anyhow, some economists are out to quasi-revive physiognomy. Naci Mocan and Erdal Tekin show that unattractive people are more likely to commit crimes. Here's their abstract:

Using data from three waves of Add Health we find that being very attractive reduces a young adult's (ages 18-26) propensity for criminal activity and being unattractive increases it for a number of crimes, ranging from burglary to selling drugs. A variety of tests demonstrate that this result is not because beauty is acting as a proxy for socio-economic status. Being very attractive is also positively associated adult vocabulary test scores, which suggests the possibility that beauty may have an impact on human capital formation. We demonstrate that, especially for females, holding constant current beauty, high school beauty (pre-labor market beauty) has a separate impact on crime, and that high school beauty is correlated with variables that gauge various aspects of high school experience, such as GPA, suspension or having being expelled from school, and problems with teachers. These results suggest two handicaps faced by unattractive individuals. First, a labor market penalty provides a direct incentive for unattractive individuals toward criminal activity. Second, the level of beauty in high school has an effect on criminal propensity 7-8 years later, which seems to be due to the impact of the level of beauty in high school on human capital formation, although this second avenue seems to be effective for females only.

Notice how their last two sentences describe clear economic hypotheses for what might explain this relationship. While I don't find it hard to believe that there is a relationship between appearance and crime, I wonder about a couple of things. First, these authors use the same study that you all used for the empirical exercise, so it is possible that interviewers perceived their "criminality" in their demeanor or dress and rated down their appearance. Second, even assuming that interviewers are able to "objectively" rate people's appearance, beauty is only partially exogenous. Individuals can, and do, invest time, money, and effort moving themselves around the beauty distribution. It may be that the traits which explain investments in appearance also explain low test scores, low wages, and/or higher crime.

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