Why Do We Admire Effort and Derogate Beauty?
by John A. Johnson
Rudy is a film, based upon a true story, of an untalented, five-foot runt with a burning desire to play football for Notre Dame. This obsession causes him to ignore ridicule and discouragement from those around him. After his applications to transfer from Holy Cross Junior College to Notre Dame are rejected repeatedly, he finally gains admission to the university and earns a spot on the football team. He works harder than all of his athletically gifted teammates, persisting through pain and lack of opportunity to play in a real game. The story has a happy ending: Rudy's teammates cajole the coach into allowing Rudy to play in the closing moments of the last home game, and Rudy tackles the opposing quarterback. His jubilant teammates carry him off the field on their shoulders.
Reactions to Rudy's story inevitably include admiration and inspiration. We praise his tenacity, his persistent drive to achieve his goal, despite the odds. Now, let's contrast how we feel about Rudy with how we feel about a woman who, by conventional standards, is a natural beauty. Someone with gorgeous hair, a pretty face, clear, smooth skin, and a perfectly proportioned body regardless of what she eats or how much she exercises. Her natural beauty gives her all sorts of advantages over more ordinary women. She has her choice of men. Even men with no chance of romance with her treat her with deference and do special favors for her. Other women want to be her best friend. We hold beauty pageants that recognize women primarily for being beautiful. But, although we may admire a woman’s beauty and want to be close to her, do we admire her as a person in the same way that we admire someone like Rudy?
Obviously not. There's a big difference between admiring an attractive individual as we would a beautiful landscape and admiring someone as a human being. In fact, the feeling is quite often the opposite of admiration for many individuals who cannot have the friendship or love of the beautiful woman: We hate her. Women are jealous of her natural endowments. Non-alpha males, tortured by unfulfilled longing, resent her inaccessibility. Both sexes scowl about how unfair it is that some people are lucky enough to be born beautiful and never have to work hard to achieve anything. We question the intelligence of beautiful women. We scoff at the superficiality of beauty pageants or even claim that they are demeaning to women. If a beautiful woman achieves status in an organization we whisper that she must have slept her way to the top. We coin phrases such as "Beauty is only skin deep" to derogate beautiful women. The derogation of attractive individuals is readily explained by evolutionary psychology as a strategy for competing with rivals. By pointing out flaws in our rivals, we improve our own chances of being recognized for whatever we have to offer.
But is it logical, fair, and rational to consider the life of Rudy (or a female equivalent) to be more worthy of praise than the life of a man or woman who is born beautiful? Let’s put aside the pettiness and jealousy we might hold toward beautiful people. Is there something objectively more admirable about Rudy with his relentless drive, his strong will to achieve, than someone who is a natural beauty?
Let's take a closer look at Rudy's life. First, one could question why he invested so much time on an activity for which he was so ill suited. How smart was that? Would not his time have been better spent doing something at which he could excel? Next, one could point out that Rudy's goal (playing football) has superficial social value at best. All of those hours spent on the practice field might have been spent on applying what he was learning in the classroom (he was a sociology major) toward solving social problems weightier than how to beat Georgia Tech. Finally, even if we grant importance to one football team beating another team, what did Rudy really contribute? Perhaps his efforts inspired his teammates. Whether the talented Notre Dame team actually needed this inspiration to win is another question.
Okay, someone will say. Maybe the Rudy story is not the best case study in the virtue of persistence, hard work, and sacrifice because it is only a football story. Let's take a different case, the case of a shy young man who suffers from stuttering and exotropia (a visual defect in which one of his eyes turns outward). The young man's traits make speaking in front of groups of people extremely difficult. Nonetheless, he pursues a career in academics, which requires a significant amount of speaking in front of students and colleagues. He struggles early on and is almost denied tenure. Despite his handicaps, he eventually establishes himself as one of the most important personality psychologists in the history of the discipline. The discipline's respect and admiration for Henry A. Murray is evident in the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe and in numerous awards that bear his name. This special admiration is certainly based in part on Murray's drive and determination to succeed even though he was not well-suited for public speaking.
Ah, but Murray was also intelligent and creative, you might say. We are primarily recognizing his creative contributions to the field. Yes, his contributions are all the more laudable because he had to work hard to compensate for his weaknesses. But we would not recognize him as we have if he merely tried hard and failed to produce anything of value. Similarly, it would be wrong to create awards honoring someone who was physically attractive but had not accomplished anything. Academics admire and recognize only substantial intellectual and creative contributions. We do not create awards to honor psychologists who are merely good looking.
But now we run into a little puzzle. Where did Murray get his intelligence and creativity? The heritability of intelligence is estimated to be about .75, and creativity, about .50. Differences in intelligence and creativity that cannot be accounted for by genes are due to unique life experiences and random factors. In other words, if you are smart and creative, you were lucky to be born to parents with good genes and lucky to have experiences that helped you realize your intellectual and creative potential. These are well-established findings from behavior genetics. So what is the puzzle? There are two puzzles, actually. First, why do we admire, honor, and reward people who were lucky enough to be born with a favorable configuration of genes and life experiences? That makes about as much sense as admiring someone who is lucky enough to pick a winning number in the lottery. Second, why admire someone with genes for high intelligence, but not admire someone with genes for physical attractiveness? Is this logical or fair?
At this point, Murray fans might backtrack to emphasize his dogged determination to succeed despite his handicaps. It is not just his intelligence and creativity that we admire. Without his indomitable will, his tenacity, his refusal to give up, no matter what the odds, he would never have achieved what he did. It is the combination of his intelligence, creativity, and strong will that we admire. He was lucky to get good genes from his parents. He was lucky to grow up in a wealthy family who sent him to Harvard. He was fortunate to spend a vacation with Carl Jung and to meet Christiana Morgan, both of whom took a liking to him. He was lucky that Gordon Allport supported him during his struggle for tenure. We do not credit him for these lucky events that he did not control, but we will give him credit for his tenacity, his persistence, his character. This case differs radically from someone who is born with genes for physical attractiveness and therefore does not have to work to gain favorable attention. Only people who show determination and work hard deserve special recognition.
Our desire to applaud determination is so strong that we institutionally recognize the efforts of disadvantaged individuals whose physical performances are often less than mediocre. Events such as the Special Olympics and Paralympics provide an opportunity for people to cheer for the disabled just for doing the best they can. It is a pity that we can’t have similar events for the thousands of less disabled but still unfortunate people who will never be applauded for anything. For each Henry Murray or Rudy Ruettiger who achieves recognition for some measure of success in life, there are dozens of unaccomplished stutterers and runts who endure endless teasing, bullying, and derogation—far more derogation than what is usually experienced by unaccomplished but physically attractive people. Unlike Special Olympians, they live a miserable life and die without receiving a medal for anything.
Sadly, it is true that some people derogate unfortunates—the stutterers, the overweight, the blemished, the mentally retarded—more than they derogate the beautiful. Overall, unfortunates may suffer more than beautiful people. But on the issue of derogation, we need to keep in mind that only some people are so malevolent as to pick on the disadvantaged, and that this kind of derogation is universally recognized as cruel or even evil. We can nod approvingly when someone criticizes the superficiality of beauty pageants, but we would consider it extremely poor taste to put down the Special Olympics or Paralympics.
Let us now return to the notion that determination, tenacity and dogged persistence deserves special admiration and recognition because willful striving is something that we control rather than a lucky gift like good genes or fortunate life experiences. (And let us leave aside the question of whether physically attractive people must possess determination to maintain their beauty. Surely many do follow rigid diets, engage in strenuous exercise routines, and deny themselves unhealthy pleasures that might put their beauty at risk.) The question is whether willful striving really is something that we create rather than something that is handed to us like genes for high intelligence or a Harvard education. Why is it that some people have "strong wills" and others, "weak wills?" Why do some people will themselves to overcome disadvantages and accomplish extraordinary things, while others only manage to will themselves to indulge in physical pleasures and still others will themselves to commit antisocial, destructive acts? Do people choose how much will they possess for various pursuits?
Of course not. People certainly do make choices, and these choices are based on the amount of will they possess for various activities. "Will" is simply the capacity to follow through on choices. But will itself is not something freely chosen; we simply have the will to do something or we do not. You cannot tell yourself at a particular point in time to have the willpower to persist at a task or to avoid eating that calorie-laden piece of cheesecake. The will is simply there or it is not. And what determines what we call "strength of will?" The same thing as all other human traits: genes and experiences. The domain of personality containing traits such as will, persistence, tenacity, determination, and so forth is Factor III of the Five-Factor Model (FFM), often labeled Conscientiousness. John Digman, a pioneer of the FFM, referred to Factor III as Will to Achieve. One’s level on Factor III, like the level of the other four major factors, remains virtually constant over the adult lifespan. Factor III, which shows a heritability of about .4, predicts school grades and performance in a wide range of adult occupations as well as scores on IQ tests. People who are lucky enough to inherit genes for high intelligence and high Conscientiousness and to experience life events that help them realize their potential are indeed fortunate. Not only are they fated to achieve great success by conventional standards, they will also be admired and recognized by others. If they possess physical shortcomings, their achievements may even be recognized by special awards or Hollywood movies.
Nobody chooses his or her level or direction of willpower. The strength and direction of your will is something given to you, and not all people are given the same amount. Addicts suffer from low willpower to refrain from their addictions. Children with ADHD lack the will to concentrate on tasks. They did not choose to be this way. They do not want to be this way. This essay could be just as much about the derogation of "weak-willed" people as the derogation of beautiful people. Derogating weak will is the other side of the coin of celebrating effort and strong will. This is unfair and cruel. The hidden (and incorrect) assumption for most people is that beauty, as a fixed, physical trait that we passively receive, is unworthy of genuine admiration, while will is some nonphysical energy that any person can conjure up flexibly at any time, in any quantity necessary. In reality, willpower is not equally available to all of us. We do not all have the same amount of willpower to overcome obstacles. Like most personality traits, willpower is normally distributed: Most of us have an average amount and fewer people have either a lot or a little. Since we are not free to choose our level and direction of willpower, those who possess a strong will are, objectively, no more admirable than those who lack will. Moreover, admiring someone with a will to engage in activities that you personally value is just a form of self-adulation.
Yes, people who possess natural beauty are just plain lucky, but so are people who possess a strong will to engage in socially valued activities. Hard-working people are no more deserving of special admiration and recognition than people who are born with a predisposition toward physical attractiveness. It isn’t fair to admire effort and derogate beauty, because people can’t help what they are. However, pointing this out will not change our attitudes toward effort and beauty, because attitudes have nothing to do with abstract fairness and logic. Our attitudes are based on our evolved nature to look at other people as potential resources. Stupid, dull, lazy people are usually not very useful to us. Smart, creative, overachievers might be. Our positive feelings toward hard-working people are intensified when we perceive them to be underdogs who are overcoming impossible odds, because these stories fuel our own dreams of transcending our limitations. Unattractive people have little use for beautiful people beyond the aesthetic and imaginary pleasures to be gained by gazing at them and fantasizing about them, because these people will never be our friends or lovers and we can never be as beautiful as they are. But the story of Rudy appeals to every scrawny boy who wants to be an athlete. We love the idea that we are free to do anything we desire if we work hard enough at it. Unfortunately for the effort-worshippers, their dreams are usually dashed when they eventually discover that will can not be conjured up any more than beauty. That people suffer for valuing effort over beauty is cosmic justice. g
John A. Johnson received B.S. degrees in psychology and in biology from the Pennsylvania State University 1976. He received his MA in psychology in 1979 and his PhD in psychology in 1981 from the Johns Hopkins University. In the fall of 1981 he joined Penn State’s psychology faculty as an assistant professor at the DuBois Campus. Dr. Johnson joined the graduate faculty in 1984, was tenured and promoted to associate professor in 1988, and promoted to professor in 1995. He spent the 1990-91 year as visiting professor and Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung Research Fellow at the University of Bielefeld, Germany.
John has published over 30 scholarly journal articles and book chapters and has presented over two dozen scholarly papers at regional, national, and international conferences. He has also published a number of book reviews and has served as a reviewer for all of the major personality psychology journals.
John's research has been aimed at improving the validity of self-report personality tests, particularly in the context of personnel selection. He has also studied methods for improving the validity and pragmatic utility of computer-generated, narrative personality reports for single individuals. Over 300,000 persons have completed his on-line personality test, which received an award from MSNBC.
Copyright by John A. Johnson, 2003. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2003 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. All rights reserved.