Rolf Reber Ph.D.

Critical Feeling

The Lure of Beauty

Beauty in people is talent and money – beauty in thinking and writing is truth.

Posted Jun 12, 2016

Already Plato saw that beauty may blind viewers and seduce them to believe in the goodness of people and things that are beautiful.

 Leonieke Aalders (Wikimedia; Creative Commons)
Source: Source: Leonieke Aalders (Wikimedia; Creative Commons)

Indeed, for medieval artists, something beautiful had to be good and true. In the last decades, plenty of evidence confirmed that beautiful people are seen as being more talented, intelligent, creative – you name it – and they earn more money than those of us who score average on the beauty scale.

The judgment that beauty is talent is correct; there is a positive correlation between attractiveness and intelligence.

However, the correlation is small; not everybody who is beautiful is intelligent.

Moreover, correlation is not causation. Attractiveness does not necessarily cause intelligence – it could as well be the other way round; that means, intelligent people may have the know-how to enhance their bodily appeal, or they may have more money to buy the means to be beautiful.

Physical attractiveness would only indicate intelligence without being a cause of it.

Beauty does not only play a role in judging people – it plays a role in judging what we read and write.

There have been all kinds of anecdotes about mathematicians and scientists who are more likely to believe in a beautiful proof than in a proof that is not beautiful. Akin to the famous line “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”, some mathematicians and scientists adhered to a beautiful theory even after it turned out wrong.

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Chandrasekhar has exemplified this thinking by quoting the mathematician Hermann Weyl: “My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful” (Chandrasekhar, 1987, p. 65).

Chandrasekhar continued, “the example which Weyl gave was his gauge theory of gravitation, which he had worked out in his Raum-Zeit-Materie. Apparently, Weyl became convinced that this theory was not true as a theory of gravitation; but still it was so beautiful that he did not wish to abandon it and so he kept it alive for the sake of its beauty. But much later, it did turn out that Weyl’s instinct was right after all, when the formalism of gauge invariance was incorporated into quantum electrodynamics.” (Chandrasekhar, 1987, p. 65f).

Some years ago, Morten Brun, Karoline Mitterndorfer, and I tested the assumption that people – in our case students without background in higher mathematics – judge beautiful solutions as being more probably true. We used simple arithmetic equations framed in patterns that were either symmetric or asymmetric. Although symmetry was completely unrelated to the correctness of the equations, our participants thought that equations framed in symmetrical patterns were more probably thought to be correct than equations that were shown in asymmetrical frames.

Of course, not every beautiful theory turns out to be true. However, a beautiful theory or proof is likely to be elegant and simple and might be more important for the advancement of a field than a theory or proof that looks cumbersome and complicated. In the end, we like simple explanations for a complex more than complicated explanations.

Why is beauty equaled with truth? We proposed as mechanism processing fluency (or simply, fluency) which is the feeling of ease with which one can see, hear, or think. The idea is the following: There is ample evidence that we find something more beautiful if we can process it with ease. Moreover, readers and listeners believe a statement when they can process it with ease. Hence, there is a common mechanism underlying beauty and truth, and this is fluency. Fluency in mathematical proofs could stem from the coherence of the elements of the theory. As coherence of the elements of a theory is both beautiful and a prerequisite for truth, it may even be argued that beauty is a valid indicator for the truth of a theory.

Teachers might fall prey to beautiful handwriting. Recently, Rainer Greifeneder, a professor of social psychology at the University of Basel, and his colleagues conducted research into what students have known for a long time:  That they get a better grade for their essay if it written in a beautiful handwriting. In fact, researchers could observe this effect in the laboratory as early as 1929. Psychologists thought that teachers have a stereotype that bad handwriting is a sign of lack of organization and that this stereotype influences their grading.

The new twist in Greifeneder’s research was that he looked for fluency as a potential mechanism. If teacher have a hard time reading the text, they do not only dislike it, they also think it is less credible. Indeed, when evaluators in the experiment by Greifeneder and colleagues were informed about the reading difficulty due to bad handwriting, the effect disappeared.

It is hardly surprising that all research reviewed above teaches us something about the influence of outer beauty on the perception of inner qualities. Yet should we always avoid the lure of beauty?

When it comes to beautiful people, we have to make clear that talents are best assessed by directly testing them – not by intuitive assumptions about a person that may be a carryover effect of beauty.

However, let us keep in mind that there is a weak relationship between beauty and intelligence – the more beautiful, the smarter. This contradicts the stereotype of some that beautiful people are less smart, and it might even be justified to take beauty as an indicator for intelligence if no other measure is available.

When it comes to judging essays from handwriting, teachers can benefit from the observation that the ease or difficulty of understanding the written text might influence their evaluations. If they are aware of this bias, they will be more likely to examine the essay and less likely to be driven by bad handwriting.

Finally, when it comes to “beauty is truth” in mathematics and science, we may again become aware of the fact that the positive affect that comes with beauty does not necessarily mean that a theory is true.

However, it might well be that the beauty stems from the coherence of our thoughts, which means that a beautiful theory might be more probably true – critical feeling in this case means that we pursue such a theory until it is proven right or wrong while we might abandon a theory that is not so beautiful because lack of beauty indicates both lack of coherence and lack of elegance.

All references are in:

Reber, R. (2016). Critical feeling. How to use feelings strategically. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

If you want to know more about the fluency theory of beauty:

Reber, Rolf; Schwarz, Norbert; Winkielman, Piotr (2004). "Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver's Processing Experience?". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 8 (4): 364–382. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0804_3. PMID 15582859

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