[Paleopsych] Entelechy: John A. Johnson: Why Do We Admire Effort and Derogate Beauty

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Mon Jun 20 18:42:03 UTC 2005

John A. Johnson: Why Do We Admire Effort and Derogate Beauty
Entelechy: Mind & Culture

[Thanks to Alice Andrews for bringing this to my attention. My understanding is 
that it was not until Jesus spoke about committing lust in one's heart that 
interior states were a major factor in making moral judgments. I do not know 
the history of the requirement of "mens rea" (usually rendered as criminal 
intent) as being necessary to establish in to prove guilt in certain crimes. 
Has murder always been distinguished from manslaughter? In the same way? Across 

[Until these questions have been answered, the reader should be careful in 
extrapolating Johnson's notions beyond those of his circle all the way back to 
the EEA.

[Howard Bloom has pointed out that non-human primates are very good at bullying 
the handicapped. I suppose that others whose "moral intuitions" tell them not 
to do so that, well maybe this is true, but "we" are civilized.

[Further thought: even if conscientiousness had a hereditability of 0.4, it 
still needs to be exercised. What is the optimal reward level for its exercise, 
optimal from the standpoint of someone unborn, not of me, who may be set in my 
ways? How hard, in other words, should I discipline my children? I'm not sure 
I'd want to be stricter than my wife or my neighbors, if I want to get along 
with them. Maybe I should think about what kind of neighborhood I'd like to 
live in.

[The only really strict neighborhoods now are those of Christian Evangelicals. 
(The Jewish mother is long gone.) But I don't want my children coming away as 
Christians, until I see far better evidence for the truth of their doctrines. A 
healthy disrespect for authority is among the virtues I would cultivate. In 
fact, Creationists very much DO have this healthy disrespect, since Darwinism 
leads to "relativism."

[For whose sake do I want to raise my children to exercise their 
conscientiousness? For them? For my glory? (In my case, this is a small 
factor.) For the community as a whole?

[And what do I am for in moral education? Happiness, presumably, certainly not 
the glorification of God, which is un-Christian: And hee [Jesus] said vnto 
them, The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. --Mark 2:27 
(original spelling). Now happiness consists of pleasure, engagement, and 

[Think in terms of a "psychological contract," that will deal with the general 
level of moral education across a community, which corresponds to a "social 
contract," which is really a political contract. What should be the mix of 
pleasure, engagement, and meaning moral education should aim for. How can it be 
tailored to individuals? WHy do I care about the state of the culture, as long 
as others leave me alone? Is tolerance the biggest virtue to cultivate? Why so 
now? It certainly hasn't been in less "enlightened" ages. Does capitalism and 
now the Internet mean much less social glue is needed than before?

[A string of questions, many I've have been entertaining for quite a while, but 
stirred up again by the essay you are about to read.]

      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

      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

      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

      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

      [2]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.


    1. http://www.entelechyjournal.com/
    2. http://www.personal.psu.edu/~j5j

More information about the paleopsych mailing list