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Is it Better to be Smart or Beautiful?

Is it Better to be Smart or Beautiful?

    Which combination of qualities would you want for your children?

    1. Average intelligence and beauty

    2. High intelligence and average looks

    In the United States, people my age were raised to value brains over beauty. But, as you know, my parents’ generation – the so-called Greatest Generation  were simpletons who didn’t know science from magic. Maybe we should go back and check some of their assumptions.

    Let’s turn off our modesty filters for today so we don’t get tangled in our own false humility. I’ll go first. I’m smart, as far as I can tell, but no one would mistake me for attractive. So I know what it feels like to be smart and unattractive. I don’t have a sense of what it feels like to be attractive while having average intelligence, but frankly it looks like a better deal.

    Science tells us that attractive people have a full range of benefits throughout life. They get better jobs, higher pay, more invitations, better sex partners, and a higher quality of life in general. Studies even say we judge attractive people to be smarter and more competent. And to the extent that beauty is a marker for good health, even the kids of attractive people have advantages.

    Civilization is designed for people of average intelligence because they are the majority. Entertainment is focused on average people and so they have more opportunities for fun. User interfaces are designed so average people can use them, and so on. Average intelligence is a perfect fit for modern life because modern life is designed that way. 

    Being attractive has its downsides, or so I hear. I assume attractive people have more stalkers and unwanted attention. And…that’s all the problems I can think of. Otherwise being attractive seems like a great deal.

    Interestingly, few people have crossed over from one situation to the other and reported it. Intelligence doesn’t change that much and there is only so much you can do with your looks. We all have suspicions about what it is like to be in someone else’s situation, but without experiencing it you can never really know. 

    In the past two years I got a whiff of the value of attractiveness. I had a personal shopper pick my clothes so I didn’t look so much like a victim of a fashion crime. I also transformed my body from an average-American body to a toned six-pack situation. I experienced (and this is anecdotal of course) a huge difference in how people treat me in person. I’m still short, bald, old and bespectacled, so there is a limit to how much I can improve. But even so, the benefits of perhaps 20% more attractiveness were substantial to my daily happiness even if it was all in my mind.

    I also hear a lot of stories from spouse-free people now that I am one of them. The attractive spouse-free people have insanely interesting lives because they get amazing offers on a regular basis. When I was married I never heard any of their stories. Now that I am one of them, the spouse-frees open up to me. If you think attractive single people in 2015 are living the same lives as the rest of us, you are very, very, very, very wrong. That’s all I can tell you, and I had to leave out several “verys” for brevity.

    Schools are organized to support the notion that brains are more important than looks. Most of the classes feed your brain and one or two are about fitness and health. I think science is awkwardly poised to suggest we should change the balance and focus a bit more on what I will call learned attractiveness. You can influence your attractiveness by exercise, nutrition, skin care, hair care, fashion, makeup, and more. And getting that stuff right is frankly more useful than getting an A+ in trigonometry, unless you plan on a technical career.

    Personality is another factor you can tweak to improve your perceived attractiveness. Schools teach kids the rules of society but they don’t teach how to fix a broken personality. Adults end up in therapy to figure out how to deal with others. I didn’t know how to have a proper personal conversation until I was in my twenties and took the Dale Carnegie course. Personality is only partially genetic. A big part of it is technique, and technique can be taught.

    I don’t think there is any hope that schools will offer beauty and personality classes as an alternative for kids who won’t benefit from learning trigonometry. But wouldn’t science support that strategy?

    Scott Adams

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