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On Bias: The Pseudo Science Of Judging By Appearances

by Soni Bhattacharya
2019-09-17
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In Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained", I came across the term "phrenology" for the first time.

"Why don't they kill us?" asks Calvin Candie, the southern slave owner in a gripping scene of the movie, about the slaves he brutalizes and who out-number the whites.

He continues then to hack away a skull of a slave and demonstrates a bump to explain - "submissiveness". In an article I read in 2013, this was discussed in detail, and made me curious about the idea of judgement based on shape of the skull, and the broader context of judging and forming opinions based on appearances.

This morning, read a piece in Mashable.com on a 1902 book on "phrenology", the pseudo scientific field of study premised on the theory that a person's intellect, personality and character can be determined by the shape of his or her skull-was responsible for a host of ills during its heyday in the 19th century and gave a sheen of "scientific" and "biological" truth to racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination."

As the article continued, it pointed out that this idea of phrenology "was also responsible for the comically absurd illustrations and assertions found in Vaught's Practical Character Reader, a 1902 volume that aimed to teach the public how to apply the principles of phrenology in judging people's worth." The book laid out the 42 known elements of human nature (including Acquisitiveness, Benevolence, Amativeness and Weight) and how they're made manifest in people's heads, noses, ears and chins! Yes, completely judging the book by the covers!

The descriptions of "cruel eyes," "selfish ears" and "gross, sensual chins," accompanied by some ridiculous diagrams and pictures tell the tale of how such a "science" aimed to judge people based physical appearance with no data or basis, and how the urgent language demanded attention and following.

What is appalling is how casually the judgments are passed, with such conviction and force.

Phrenology is based on the concept that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that certain brain areas have localised, specific functions or modules (see modularity of mind). Phrenologists believed that the mind has a set of different mental faculties, with each particular faculty represented in a different area of the brain. These areas were said to be proportional to a person's propensities, and the importance of the given mental faculty. It was believed that the cranial bone conformed in order to accommodate the different sizes of these particular areas of the brain in different individuals, so that a person's capacity for a given personality trait could be determined simply by measuring the area of the skull that overlies the corresponding area of the brain.

Needless to say, phrenology has now been thoroughly debunked: the idea that the shape of the skull can be used to infer mental characteristics is just plain wrong. But it was extremely popular all over the world during the 19th century, finding converts among reform-minded Bengalis in Kolkata, India, and colonial settlers in Australia.

As we work on Cognitive Biases in our work in Diversity & Inclusion, appearance-based biases do come up, which are extensions of such thinking. Whether we judge based on shapes of skulls, the preference for skin color, height, attire, smile etc. decide on behaviors and actions, from hiring to communication to promotions do exist.

A form of "stereotyping", this plays into the hands of those who can exploit people based on such perceptions (read, many politicians who we find in our world today).

It is important to remember that such biases are not based on any evidence or data, but are often results of ignorance and insecurity. As are all biases.