The Beauty Bias

As I write these words I’m riding a late night train, listening to some beautiful music and noticing a beautiful woman in the aisle opposite. And I can feel with unusual vividness my complete vulnerability to a beauty bias. The careful analytical thoughts I had hours before now seem, no matter what their care or basis, trivial and small by comparison.

If words and coherent thoughts came through this beauty channel, they would feel so much more compelling. If I had to choose between beauty and something plain or ugly, I would be so so eager to find excuses to choose beauty. If I needed to believe beauty was stronger or more moral or better for the world, reasons would be found, and it would feel easy to accept them.

This all horrifies the part of me that wants to believe what is true, based on some coherent and fair use of reasons and analysis. But I can see how very inadequate I am to resist it. The best I can do, it seems, is to not form beliefs or opinions while attending to beauty. Such as by avoiding music with non-trivial lyrics. And by wariness of opinions regarding a divide where one side is more beautiful. (Yes Tyler, this does question my taste for elegant theoretical simplicity.)

I have little useful advice here, alas, other than: know your limits. If you cannot help but to fall into a ditch if you walk nearby, then keep away, or accept that you’ll fall in.

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  • Thursday

    The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things, not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolizing faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion. The one is an aristocratical, the other a republican faculty. The principle of poetry is a very anti-levelling principle. It aims at effect, it exists by contrast. It admits of no medium. It is every thing by excess. It rises above the ordinary standard of sufferings and crimes. It presents a dazzling appearance. It shews its head turretted, crowned, and crested. Its front is gilt and bloodstained. Before it “it carries noise, and behind it tears.” It has its altars and its victims, sacrifices, human sacrifices. Kings, priests, nobles, are its train-bearers, tyrants and slaves its executioners.–“Carnage is its daughter.”–Poetry is right-royal. It puts the individual for the species, the one above the infinite many, might before right. A lion hunting a flock of sheep or a herd of wild asses is a more poetical object than they; and we even take part with the lordly beast, because our vanity or some other feeling makes us disposed to place ourselves in the situation of the strongest party. So we feel some concern for the poor citizens of Rome when they meet together to compare their wants and grievances, till Coriolanus comes in and with blows and big words drives this set of “poor rats,” this rascal scum, to their homes and beggary before him. There is nothing heroical in a multitude of miserable rogues not wishing to be starved, or complaining that they are like to be so: but when a single man comes forward to brave their cries and to make them submit to the last indignities, from mere pride and self-will, our admiration of his prowess is immediately converted into contempt for their pusillanimity. The insolence of power is stronger than the plea of necessity. The tame submission to usurped authority or even the natural resistance to it has nothing to excite or flatter the imagination: it is the assumption of a right to insult or oppress others that carries an imposing air of superiority with it. We had rather be the oppressor than the oppressed. The love of power in ourselves and the admiration of it in others are both natural to man: the one makes him a tyrant, the other a slave. Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right.

    – William Hazlitt, “Coriolanus,” Characters of Shakespear’s Plays

    • That’s a great passage, thanks!

      It makes me think that all of our modern political ideologies, from communism to libertarianism, are failed attempts to solve this problem — to put some kind of beautiful face on the anti-aristocratic temper of the times.

  • Thursday

    The human mind has a general bias towards conflating the good, the beautiful, the useful and the true. It isn’t even necessary to make excuses for beauty; we instinctively feel that it goes with the others.

  • Scott Messick

    I found this post to be quite beautiful.

  • blah

    that’s the natural order – first you impregnate beautiful, healthy women – and then you consider what civilization order and rules of logic you install on agents.

  • Aron

    Relax. Think of supply and demand, supply and demand, supply and demand..something’s happening.. it’s not working.. oh my gooooddd !!!!

    ..was that positive utility for you or just me?

  • Benjamin

    … a symptom of nature’s prime-directive, rather than an abstract bias:

    Survive & Reproduce

  • MPS


    I have come to think that to what extent we find another person *entertaining* or *amusing* or *interesting* is largely reflected by their physical appearance (if they are female) or maybe status (if they are male). (I am only writing from male perspective.) In fact, I think these feelings — feelings that someone is funny or interesting — these feelings are simply the way our subconscious mind expresses the impulse to become closer to someone, either to open opportunities for mating or for status gaining. I presume status-gaining is for security (when resources become tight) or back again to increase opportunities for mating.

    I don’t think this would be too hard to test. The same words coming from the mouths of beautiful or unattractive people could be rated by some test sample. It’s only important to make sure the beauty and the “beast” are equally good at communication (etc), for which it might help to have a sample of them as well.

  • auh

    Well, did you ask for her number?

  • Thursday

    I have come to think that to what extent we find another person *entertaining* or *amusing* or *interesting* is largely reflected by their physical appearance (if they are female) or maybe status (if they are male).

    I don’t think this is actually true, think Susan Boyle, but we do give attractive people, whether physically or socially, much more of a chance.

    • Constant

      Susan Boyle’s singing is beautiful, so she is beautiful in a key respect. When we say “beautiful” the default interpretation is “visually beautiful”, but the principle being described probably applies to beauty in the other senses as well. Robin specifically mentions music in his post.

  • mjgeddes

    Ah, but is your definition of ‘beauty’ is too restricted?… generalize man!

    Use Jürgen Schmidhuber’s ‘minimal complexity’ criteria of beauty as a starting point:

    With a suitably generalized definition, many other things you value (‘truth’ etc.) could easily turn out to fall into the ‘beauty’ category as well.

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” – Keats

    Not all bias is bad. In fact, useful ‘Bayesian priors’ and ‘bias’ are arguably one and the same, the right biases to start with are what enable intelligence to operate in ‘real-time’, no? Biases (priors) warp the mind in certain directions, with certain pre-defined categories optimized for given environments, enabling faster real-time decision making. Are there neccessery ‘universal biases’ that ALL real-time intelligences require for operating in our particular region of the multiverse?

    Beauty/creativitely seems to closely related to our own internal cognitive processes, specifically the ones associated with making decisions about modifications to our goal systems. The perception of beauty seems to be kind of positive feed-back loop whereby our own internal cognitive processes are functioning ‘smoothly’ (least action principle?) Here ‘probability’ and ‘utlity’ are simply the wrong metrics for understanding these things…’similarity’ and ‘complexity’ seem to be much more relevant…

  • Captain Oblivious

    I’m pretty sure that evolutionary psychology would “explain” this by pointing out that the standards for beauty in women (or handsomeness or even status in men) correspond reasonably well to the likelihood of that person being able to contribute towards the successful propagation of one’s genes. To the extent this is true, we are in a sense “slaves” to our genes – so go ahead and prefer beauty, even if “irrationally”: the survival of the species depends upon a sufficient number of people doing just that, and what would all your rationally-thought-out ideas accomplish if the species went extinct?

    • mjgeddes

      Of course evolutionary psychology should account for some of our perception of beauty, but there are a number of puzzling unexplained features. It fails to account for ‘platonic’ perceptions of beauty (for instance mathematicians claiming that mathematical proofs are beautiful in areas totally divorced from anything existing the historical environment) – inventing just-so ‘evolutionary’ explanations doesn’t cut-it. It also fails to account for the universal nature of certain propeties associated with beauty (symmetry) for instance, indeed the very fact there’s a universal ooncept which can be communicated is highly puzzling. Finally, the close tie-in with quality of conscious experience and complexity of our own internal cognitive processes is also highly significant and not explained by ‘evolutionary psychology’i.e., ‘make up any old plausible-sounding stuff psychology’.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    A woman with a pretty face is very alluring. Why do I desire the pretty-faced woman? Strange. I figure it’s no difference than my desire for women over men, related to fertility, but it seems rather irrational, that someone’s nose influences my interest in them.

    There’s the ‘halo effect’, where people think that people good at something demonstrable are good at many things, which is why we like our newsreaders attractive, and think a celebrity’s opinion is interesting.

    I tend to think lyrics are generally really stupid poetry (‘Sometimes when we touch?) on the themes let’s party, let’s make love. Music has a strange way of manipulating our emotions to make us sad or happy, but it seems more base, like a drug, than an art, as even young children respond to music.

  • Ray

    What is your model of unbiased reasoning? If beauty is a “bias”, then that can be easily extended to every human motivation. But without motivation, we have no reason to seek truth, or any knowledge for that matter.

    The goal isn’t to be “unbiased” – whatever that means. It’s to be motivated in favor of the truth because you find it beautiful.

  • Philo

    Can’t you segregate your susceptibility to the influence of beauty from your formation of beliefs? It’s fine to want to experience beauty. (Strictly speaking, you want to experience what is *agreeable to you*; this won’t count as “beautiful” if you are atypical, in that the great majority of people do not find it agreeable.) But why can’t you train yourself not to let that desire produce epistemic corruption, by training yourself to notice the difference between experiential and epistemic value?

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  • mjgeddes

    Also in fantasy books and films the bad guys (trolls/orcs/trollocs etc.) are always butt ugly and the good guys (elves/warriors etc.) are always really handsome and elegant. This ensures that the audience always thoroughly approves as the handsome heroes swing their swords and take off the heads of all the generic butt-uglies, no matter how indiscriminately or brutally the heros kill.

  • Karl Chalabala

    On Beauty on Being Just by Elainne Scarry (Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard) addresses this topic quite well.

  • “Is there anything more beautiful than a beautiful, beautiful flamingo, flying across in front of a beautiful sunset? And he’s carrying a beautiful rose in his beak, and also he’s carrying a very beautiful painting with his feet. And also, you’re drunk.”
    Jack Handey

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  • I guess that explains why most of the comments on Julia Galef’s Youtube videos are not about rationality 😉