Scarring Your Children With The Lion King?

People harbor negative biases against individuals with facial anomalies

Posted Aug 05, 2019

Anjan Chatterjee
Source: Anjan Chatterjee

This post was co-authored by Franziska Hartung, Ph.D. and Clifford Workman, Ph.D.

Early in "The Lion King," Scar intones, “Life is not fair, is it, my little friend?” The movie, it would seem, valorizes this sentiment.

Critics are divided over the merits of this blockbuster that surpassed the $1,000,000,000 mark at the global box office in the first 3 weeks of its release. Nobody denies its technical wizardry. Many find that the 2019 movie lacks the heart and soul of its origins from 25 years ago. Some appreciate the progress made by Hollywood in giving Black actors a voice. Some note that the movie retells Hamlet. 

Few, however, address critically the core messages of the movie. Bloodlines determine privilege. A boy, by virtue of a family connection, owns all the land touched by the sun. A rich kid assaults a trusted servant as part of his education. A female, who routinely bests the male in a fight, is passive against oppression until the male returns. An entire group is demonized and deserves to live in despair and deprivation. How do these messages sound in 2019?

You might ask reasonably, why would cognitive neuroscientists comment on the movie? It turns out that our research in neuroaesthetics is relevant to one trope that looms large over the story. Scar’s character. At the risk of exoticizing the unfamiliar, to my ear, the names of other characters roll beautifully off the tongue. Mufasa. Simba. Nala. Zazu. Pumbaa. By contrast, the villain is named by his deformity. Evil is writ large on his face. 

The relationship between facial appearance and morality is complicated. Beautiful people are perceived as more intelligent, trustworthy, hardworking, and talented than less attractive people. The evidence for the social advantages of attractiveness is overwhelming. Compared to their less attractive counterparts, attractive people receive weaker punishments, get more raises, are hired more frequently, and are even treated better by parents. The biology of these biases is not well understood. Ten years ago, we found that our visual brains respond automatically to beautiful faces even when we are not thinking about beauty. Other neuroscientists reported that parts of the brain that encode judgments of facial beauty also encode judgments of moral goodness. An automatic beauty-is-good bias seems built into our brain. 

Recently, we reported that people have biases against individuals with facial anomalies. They view such faces as depicting individuals who are less competent, less intelligent, less trustworthy, and less hardworking than the same faces without anomalies. People associate these faces with negative attributes without being aware of harboring these associations. When people look at such faces, their brains have blunted responses in a part of the brain called the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. This region is active when people are empathetic and is part of the neural circuitry that tracks other people’s mental and motivational states. It also fails to activate when people look at others who are homeless or addicted to drugs. This blunted neural response may be a biological marker for the psychological mechanism by which we distance ourselves from some other, who we view as unlike and less than us. It may be a biological marker for dehumanization.

The idea that moral corruption is expressed by physical anomaly is woven into many popular movies. In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker’s burns signal his transformation into Darth Vader. Batman’s Two-Face, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, and many Bond villains such as Le Chiffre (facial scar over left eye), Emilio Largo (missing eye), Ernst Stavro Blofeld (large scar covering most of his right side of the face), or Alec Trevelyan (facial burns) point to a cheap Hollywood prop for villainy. The audience knows implicitly. These are bad people. Scar is a bad lion.

Recognizing such built-in biases is a first step to overcoming them. A person with a cleft palate is not inherently bad. A person with a facial acid burn is not inherently bad. A person with skin cancer is not inherently bad. A person with a port wine birthmark is not inherently bad. A person with an orbital fracture is not inherently bad. Despite what the movies would have you believe. 

If you must take your child to see The Lion King, use its messages as teachable moments. Do not settle for Hakuna Matata. There are troubles. There are worries. This is no problem-free philosophy

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