Some Socially Desirable Traits Are Disputed More Than Others
People argue about intelligence and attractiveness, but not humor or work ethic.
Many people believe we live in a “just world.”
The idea is that people generally think that the default is that the world is inherently fair. And believe unfairness is the result of mistakes or misconceptions or some kind of human error.
Which might help to explain the role of “compensatory self-enhancement.”
Researchers have found that when people learn that an individual is superior to themselves on some valued quality, their own self-esteem is thwarted.
People then respond by engaging in downward comparisons. They denigrate the threatening individual. After doing this, people report experiencing a boost in their mood.
For example, if someone sees a strikingly attractive person, they might say, “Well, that person is probably an airhead (I’m smarter than him/her).” Or if they see a rich person, they might say, “That person is probably immoral (I’m a better person than him/her).”
Similarity seems to play a role. People who feel threatened after learning someone similar to themselves is better on some quality feel especially good after engaging in downward comparison or denigrating them.
“That guy who is kind of similar to me might be more attractive but, I’ll bet he’s shallow. (There, now I feel better).”
Together, just world belief and compensatory self-enhancement imply that people resist the idea others could have a wide array of advantages and talents.
It just doesn’t seem fair that a rich guy might also be ethical, kind, good-looking, intelligent, and funny.
A while back I read a fascinating analogy comparing and contrasting our intuitions about “funny” vs. “intelligent.”
Consider the statement: “Some people are funnier than others.”
This is obviously true. Even within the same family there are people who are funnier than others. During my final year of high school, I lived with two brothers. One of them had a good sense of humor, but the other was one of the funniest people I’d ever met.
Now imagine someone says “You can’t just make a generalized statement like that. What do you even mean by ‘funny?’ There are different types of humor. Just because you’re funny doesn’t mean you’re a good person. I have a friend who isn’t very funny but he works really hard. How do you even measure ‘funny’ anyway—can a funniness test even be accurate?”
This would be a peculiar response. (Though it would be funny to hear someone say, “You know, humor tests only measure how good you are at taking humor tests.”)
Now suppose someone says, “Some people are more intelligent than others.”
A common response: “You can’t just make a generalized statement like that. What do you even mean by ‘intelligent?’ I have a friend who’s not very intelligent but he’s a hard worker. Can intelligence even be measured...”
And it’s not just intelligence. Take the statement, “Some people are more attractive than others.”
A common response: “Sure, but I’d rather be with someone with a great personality than a really hot but dumb person.”
Or: “Those people are really rich.”
“Okay, but I doubt they’re good people. They’re probably unethical and miserable. Money doesn’t buy happiness, you know.”
Implicit in these responses is that they accept the main point that people can be smarter or more attractive or wealthier. But also believe, or want to believe, there are tradeoffs.
Consider an analogy to games. Often in games, players are endowed with a certain amount of points to allot to various skills for their characters. Each player might get, for example, 50 points to distribute between “strength,” “dexterity,” and “cunning.” When I played Mario Kart back in the day, vehicles had tradeoffs between handling, acceleration, etc.
Many people have the intuition that real life works the same way. Our “points” are distributed to various qualities, but our overall average remains the same. He’s taller but I’m smarter, or she’s funnier but I’m harder working.
The belief is that strengths and shortcomings balance out, and that in the end we are all equal in terms of overall points. Smart but awkward, hot but dumb, rich but lonely, etc.
Real life isn’t like a video game, though. It’s deeply uncomfortable to realize is that we do not receive the same endowments. One person might be endowed with 100 points that get distributed among their socially-valued qualities. Another might be endowed with 20.
There really are people who are fit, kind, funny, hard-working, and rich. And there really are people on the opposite end of the spectrum who are plain, unfunny, lazy, unkind, and poor. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
But the fact that people really exist on both extreme ends feels unjust.
Nevertheless, despite these uneven endowments, there exist many different status domains. Maybe you make more money than your neighbors, but their kids are better looking than yours. Maybe you have more friends, but they’re in better shape than you. Maybe you can make better paper airplanes, but they have more Pokémon cards (we all have our aspirations in life).
Only recently I discovered that some people have unexpectedly grown massive followings on YouTube by simply “unboxing” (opening) Amazon packages and revealing their contents.
Having lots of different domains helps to solve the zero sum problem of status.
Interestingly, people seem to believe in tradeoffs about intelligence or attractiveness or wealth but not about moral character or work ethic.
If you say, “Some people are more ethical than others.”
It’s unlikely someone would respond, “That’s so subjective, you can’t just make a generalized statement like that…how do you even define ‘ethical?’ There are different kinds of ethics and everyone is ethical.” Which is odd because morality is arguably far more difficult to define than intelligence.
But you’ll often hear people question claims about beauty. “Beauty is subjective/Beauty is in the eye of the beholder/Everyone is beautiful.”
Perhaps this difference is because people don’t envy moral people. So they don’t feel the urge to challenge statements about it. Or because people generally feel they are morally superior anyway.
Studies suggest that people don’t have a strong desire to improve their moral character. But people often do want to improve their attractiveness or intelligence. This is interesting because morality, attractiveness, and intelligence are all, to varying degrees, features that are argued about. Yet people are mostly interested in improving on the latter two traits.
Many products are marketed with the promise of making people hotter or smarter. But there are no pills or exercises or brain teasers marketed toward making people more ethical. Shows you where people’s priorities lie.
And while people say they desire a moral romantic partner, studies suggest they don’t want to date people who are too moral.
Humor is similar. People readily agree some people are funnier than others. And it doesn’t seem like people envy funny people much. Plus most people believe their own sense of humor is better than average.
But often people do envy smarter or more attractive people. And thus arguing about the definition of intelligence or beauty or claiming they are not real or objective is a way to bring people down a peg. Or to lift themselves up a little.
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