Wednesday, May 20, 2009

From the Archive -- 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.

Comments:
I think it would be very hard to pick from a group of people just by their outer appearances who are criminals and those who aren't. I believe the most successful criminals are the ones we least suspect. Never judge a book by its cover.
 
You obviously cannot identify criminals just by looking at a group of people and picking out the unattractive ones, but I would definitely believe that on average unattractive people commit more crimes because as we have been talking about in lecture, unattractive people have it a lot harder in many aspects of life. I mean if I did not get hired because I was too unattractive or if no one wanted to date me, i would probably be more inclined to commit crimes as well. I am joking, but the article did not really surprise me.
 
This article is not really surprising me because in Chinese’s physiognomy, they really point out what kind of appearance will commit into crime. They always tend to be unattractive people. Of course, this is not always right. However, people who commit in crime tend to be born in poor families which have less money to support their daily life, and how can they have money to invest on themselves. I think it always have exception, because a friend of mine, she is from a wealthy family but she love to commit crime (stealing stuff). So, we shouldn't judge people by their outlook.
 
I can see why the study shows that ugly people are more likely to commit crimes. However, I believe this is mainly correlated with the fact that these 'ugly' people might come from poorer backgrounds. These people might just be trying to make a living or simply want luxuries they cannot afford. Thus, these people are subject to steal(commit crimes). Their main focus just might be that they need to eat, make money, and aren't too interested in what they look like. While wealthier people if not attractive can afford to make themselves more attractive by purchasing make up, nice clothes, accessories, etc and therefore don't need to steal. But even wealthy people commit crimes take Winona Ryder for example somewhat of a pretty girl (in my opinion) with money and caught stealing designer clothes..I mean what's up with that? ha..So we can't assume who is or is not a criminal based on their looks.
 
Although I can understand the reasoning behind believing that unattractive people are more likely to become criminals, I do not think its a fair statement. There are attractive people who end up in jail all the time, for example, how often are we scrolling through the television channels and seeing the latest hot celebrity doing something stupid and ending up with a mug shot on tv for everyone to see. I also believe that even though it may be believed that unattractive people may have it tough for whatever reason, social skills, less confidence etc... those same people go on to do great things maybe because they were less social and spent more time studying and figuring out how to be successful
 
Freakonomics also mentions that people who are born to young mothers, who are giving them up for adoption, etc. are more likely to become criminals, at least in part, because parents are more likely, to not take care of their babies. They may still be drinking alcohol, doing drugs etc. and this could very likely lead to harming the physical appearance of the baby. So that is another reason why this may be the case. When you think of blue-collar criminals however, I bet this trend does not hold true. I would be interested to see a study on that.
 
I don't believe it's a fair statement. I understand what the author says but i feel a kind of his biased. We talked in lecture, unattractive people have more disadvantage than attractive people but I doesn't lead to commit criminals. I think that criminals are made by the society and their circumstance. Of course, the levels of beauty in high school are important and it leads their human skills but appearances does not matter to make relationship with people.
 
I don't agree with the theory that "unattractive" individuals are more likely to be criminals. I feel that there is more to it than just looks. So many other factors play into why individuals commit crimes. Their personality, up-bringing, friends, etc. can also influence whether or not they will be more inclined to commit crimes.
 
I have to pick a bone with the terms "ugly" and "criminal". This article is purely subjective, and I completely disagree with the authors theory. The word ugly, has absolutely no bounderies and no clear definition. What the author and the president of U.S. may have different views as to what defines "ugly", to loose of a term impedes no value. Criminal would be somewhat easier to define but are we referring to ugly people who jaywalk or ugly people who commit murder?? If we assume all criminals are ugly, then it must be all non-criminals are beautiful.
 
This is the second study I've read from the blog that has considered physical appearance as the cause of a given outcome. The assumption being that physical appearance can alter one's decision making ablities. Once again we are faced with a completely subjective study. How do economists take into account peoples' perception of beauty and how much that costs society? Does discrimination cause a loss of effeciency in the labor market? I'm sure of it, but at the root of the discussion is why do tall or attractive people succeed when short and ugly people dont. First, its an arbitrary overgeneralization that ugly people commit more crimes. Secondly, it is beyond economics to determine what is beauty. It's alarming to even see these studies being published, as if economists were all relentless statisticians looking to publish findings on new causative relationships. Maybe its all b.s. and maybe the simple answer is humans are genetically wired to find some people attractive and others unattractive. Given this information, we conclude that individuals who gain confidence at an early age succeed at a far higher rate than those who don't receive the same special treatment.
 
I think that it isn't an individual's appearance that is the indicator of whether or not they are a criminal, but rather in how they present themselves to society, i.e. individuals with high respect for societal norms are less likely to break those norms regardless of whether or not they are hygiene maintenance or bike theft.
 
Of course this is not saying all criminals are "unattractive" or that if you are ugly you are more likely to become a criminal, i am more inclined to believe that beauty is a social construction and criminals are those who go against the social order, so it is reasonable to say that the people who commit crimes are not conformists to what we call beauty and could in fact be "ugly" by the standards a law abiding, conforming citizen.
 
The idea that ugly people commit crimes is a hard one to prove because many crimes that take place are not solved, therefore we know nothing about who committed the crime, in other cases the crimes have not been noticed at all. This creates the possibility the his data may have some biased data.
 
I guess you could say that this would concur with the theory of "survival of the fittest." While beauty is not always associated with being the most fit, I feel there is a correlation. Therefore the criminals, those who do not carry as much beauty, result to criminal activities because for one reason or another they can survive in our society. And as with evolution, if you can not win (or even survive) with the cards you are dealt, you deserve to not lose (i.e. put in jail.)
 
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