Evil, on the Face of It

Behavioural predilections are all in the mind, but we still judge each other by physical appearance

People have long wondered whether there is a connection between the way we look and the way we behave. Will a comical face be an advantage if we decide to be a stand-up? Do a heavy, Neanderthal brow, slit eye and/or curled lip predispose a chap to villainy? The brain’s sense of reason and justice tells us that to react to people because of the way they look is both morally wrong and asking for trouble. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Nonetheless, we all seem to live as if the way we look mattered a great deal. We encourage children to do up ties and tuck in shirts because we know that teachers respond more favourably to students who do not look as if they are wont to wisecrack. Those aspects of our appearance which we can change, we do. We look in the mirror, apply lipstick, powder out spots, comb hair and maybe shave, although this last has clearly changed its message over the years. Stubble used to be the surest sign of a scoundrel; now it can even denote saintliness on a priest. I have decided to cultivate long Victorian sideburns as I intend to walk across Scotland next year in Mendelssohn’s footsteps to commemorate his bicentenary. Image is everything.

Appropriately, the German magazine Der Spiegel, which means The Mirror, informs us that brain scientists have identified a mechanism in the brain that controls our predilection for good or bad, legal or illegal behaviour. In other words, wrongdoing has nothing to do with our outward appearance. This revelation is tied to a new Swiss exhibition called Die Anatomie des Boesen (The Anatomy of Evil), at the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen until 10 May 2009. No nation on earth is more aware of presentation than the Swiss, who keep their mountains spotless. It was a Swiss author, Gottfried Keller, who wrote the morality tale, Kleider Machen Leute (Clothes Make People).

And it was the American nation that has held a leadership contest in which the appearance of the candidates played a huge part. Admittedly, at the start of the campaign, the talk was all of colour making no difference, but by the end even the most respectable commentators were crowing about history being made with the election of a black president, and of the fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s dream. One expects that after a few months, Barack Obama’s complexion will cease to matter, and that the brain scientists have been right: it’s all in the mind. Heaven help us if not.

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