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Strange Days: Science


The Mark of Cain

Anthropometry, and why ugly people are more likely to break the law

Ugly Criminal

A Milanese thief, pictured in Lombroso's L'Uomo Delinquente.


Ugly people are more likely to break the law. This is the statistically based conclusion in a paper published in The Review of Economics and Statistics entitled Ugly Criminals. The BBC describes the findings as being significant in “the new field of anthropometrics”, suggesting that this could be a handy profiling tool. In fact, anthropometry, in particular detecting criminal tendencies by the measurement of facial characteristics, is a very old discipline. It was previously condemned as pseudoscience – could it be making a comeback?

It is intuitively obvious – though not necessarily true – that personality is reflected in someone’s face. The ancient Greeks formalised their beliefs, such as close-set eyes indicating that someone is untrustworthy, into the ‘science’ of physiognomy. Predictably, this was abused; in Socrates’s trial, his facial features were cited as evidence of his brutal nature. Physiognomy remained on a par with palmistry and the like until the 17th century, when learned men including Sir Thomas Browne attempted a more rigorous approach by completely cataloguing all possible facial conformations.

Physiognomy classifies each facial element and links it to a personality trait. Curved eyebrows mean someone is friendly by nature; angled eyebrows signify someone who is always seeking to control. Everything means something.

By the 19th century, this technique was being used to fight crime. An Italian professor, Cesare Lombroso, wrote his definitive book L’Uomo Delinquente or “Criminal Man” in 1876. This was supposedly based on a statistical study of the features of convicts compared to those of (presumably honest) soldiers. Lombroso claimed that certain features indicated particular types of criminal. Murderers have prominent jaws, and pickpockets have scanty beards (unless they shave?). A one-sided grin marks brutality, whereas poisoners have “a fawning smile”. Lombroso’s technique was widely used in Europe until the 1930s. Prosecuting lawyers could claim that a flattened nose was a scientific­ally proven sign of a thief, thus strengthening their case.

Lombroso’s approach was far from objective. His assumption was that white people were sup­erior. Features that resembled any other race were a sign of atavism, reversion to a more primitive state, indicating criminal propensities. The same line of racial thinking led to the Nazi “Final Solution”.

Such beliefs were fashionable in educated circles and the physiognomic signs of criminality were routinely doled out to Victorian literary villains. Hence, perhaps, the deliberate irony that when Sherlock Holmes first meets Moriarty, it is the latter who opens with a remark on his opponent’s physiognomy – “You have less frontal development than I should have expected.”

In 1913, the British scientist Charles Goring took a more scientific approach in The English Convict: A Statistical Study and demolished Lombroso’s case. Goring attacked what he called the “superstition of criminology” and all forms of prejudice. In his detailed study, Goring classified all sorts of features (noses come in many grades of “convex, concave, humped and undulating”) and found no evidence that criminals differed from the rest of the population. He even noted that the “once-popular dislike of red hair” had “no justification at all except as a whim of æsthetics”. Goring did, however, find that convicts were, on average, shorter, lighter and of lower intelli­gence. These were general characteristics of the underfed and undereducated lower classes that they tended to come from.

The 1940s saw another attempt to relate personality to physical appearance. The American psychologist William Sheldon spent many hours studying nude photographs of young men. The result was Constitutional Psych­ology, which broadly classified people as skinny, studious Ectomorphs, muscular, athletic Mesomorphs and cheerful, chubby Endomorphs. Criminals, Sheldon determined, were more likely to be Mesomorphs and vice versa.

(The discovery of Sheldon’s cache of nude posture photo­graphs in the 1970s was a major embarrassment. The volunteers were from top Ivy League colleges and many had gone on to become successful in business or politics. The photographs were hastily destroyed.)

After a brief popularity, Constit­utional Psychology also succumbed to large-scale statistical reviews which showed that body shape was heavily influenced by lifestyle. Spend a lot of time training or working out and you’ll be muscular, if you pig out on junk food you’ll put on weight. If you spend many hours studying nude photographs of young men…

This takes us to the modern Ugly Criminals study, which is subtler than it might seem. It is based on an anonymous questionnaire combined with equally anonymous ratings of the subject’s attractiveness. It shows a small but significant correlation between attractiveness, or the lack of it, and criminality. The most unattractive segment are 1.5 per cent more likely to have committed robbery, 2.2 per cent more likely to have committed assault, and 3 per cent more likely to have sold drugs. Or to have been caught doing so, at any rate.

The authors note previous work showing how more attractive people are more successful in their careers and earn more. This puts less attractive people at a disadvantage in the world of work and nudges them towards criminal alternatives. In addition, less attract­ive people suffer socially, make fewer friends and build less of what the authors call “human capital”. They are therefore not as sympathetic to others and have less of an investment in society. This effect is far more pronounced in females, suggesting that they are judged on their appearance to a much greater degree.

The message seems to be that ugly people need a bit less condemnation and a bit more understanding. But that finding lacks the popular appeal of saying that they’re all criminals and should be locked up, and so is probably doomed to be added to the file of Damned science.

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