Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Discriminating Attractiveness (Part III)

Physical appearances are largely predetermined by our genes and are therefore very difficult to change, which is why judgements based upon them are often so disagreeable. Behaviour on the other hand is widely regarded as being malleable and we are therefore far less wary about making judgements based upon the actions and dispositions of others. Indeed it is still socially acceptable to treat people preferentially based upon their behaviour. If someone isn’t likeable, honest or attentive then why should we treat them equally? More to the point, how could we possibly avoid being unconsciously prejudiced against unlikeable, dishonest or inattentive behaviours? Surely it is the anti-social and the badly behaved who should adjust their behaviour, not the rest of us?

As with hairstyles, clothing or many other cosmetic alterations to physical appearances, behavioural traits can often be adjusted without influencing the personality or character of the individual. But might it be argued that there are many that cannot; personality traits that are more like our bone structure or the colour of our skin? If so then how might we distinguish between those that are fixed and those that are malleable? Moreover, if we expect people to change their behaviour, how sure can we be that they have any control over the traits that we find objectionable? And if they don’t then is it any more justified to judge someone on the basis of their personality traits than it is to judge them on the colour of their skin?

In the previously cited paper by Nalini Ambady and colleagues they mention that: “all attempts to train teachers, for instance, in nonverbal behavioural skills have met with marginal success.” They speculate that more highly rated teachers most likely have an increased ability to communicate using non-verbal cues (though they make no mention of what these cues might be). If it is possible to recognise the qualities of an effective teacher in as little as 2 seconds then there must be something appreciable at work that expresses itself in almost every particle of their behaviour. Whether this is a singular quality or a constellation of subtle cues is as yet unclear, but if effective teaching is the result of the use of such behavioural cues then the question arises whether it is possible to acquire them or – more crucially - whether the attempt to do so would be the behavioural equivalent of trying to acquire someone’s genetically inherited bone structure?

Despite the combined insights of more than a century of educational research there is still a great deal to be settled about what makes a good teacher. But if it turns out that the defining traits of the best teachers are impossible to acquire other than by genetic inheritance and early psycho-social development then the repercussions would seem to be profound, if only for teacher training. But, if certain behavioural traits are as immutable as physical appearances then we might justifiably question the degree to which certain behaviours are discriminated against, not just in higher education but within society as a whole.


Anonymous said...

Interesting and disturbing in equal measure. You say that many behaviours are malleable but to what extent do you think that behaviour is fixed?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Unfortunately it's far from clear - which probably explains why it is still widely considered acceptable to judge people on the basis of their behaviour. So, if I understand your question correctly, it seems unlikely that any change is immanent in our understanding of behaviour or our attitudes towards its many kinds. On the other hand, you can probably guess from your own traits which ones are least likely to change, nonetheless that's very difficult to say for certain and even more difficult to build any kind of theory upon.

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