I find it physically uncomfortable; I get a shiver down my spine and a lump in my throat when I hear people idolize how others look. It conjures up memories of the old days at University when the men (realistically, they were acting like boys) would huddle together in a room and drink a crate of beers. Only males were allowed, and they would spend the day at a yearly “bachelor party.” They weren’t celebrating anyone in particular; they were just celebrating the essence of being a lad, not talking about your emotions, and ranking the females in the hall. As a female, I never attended, and I don’t know the full details of the day, but it never sounded like something that would elicit FOMO in me. I do know they went through the entire ~100 girls in the hall and ranked them on hotness.  

I personally would like to be evaluated as a complete human being for the actions, thoughts, and vibe that I bring. I think the least important factor about a person should be their looks because it is something one generally can’t change.

You might be nodding along in agreement that clearly, this seems like a bad thing, but what’s my point? Where am I heading with this? Recently, within the EA community, I’ve had a few shivers down my spine and lumps in my throat. I've heard many high-status males in EA being described as “hot” and “sooo attractive.” Jokes on Twitter about “I only joined EA because of how hot {X person} is,” I’ve heard people mention they could “put a poster of {EA Person} on my bedroom wall.” I know that mostly these are jokes, but it still provides the same discomfort I get when I notice idolization.

*Note: I excluded specific names from the article as I didn't want to draw any more unwanted attention to specific people in the community. 

Here are the many reasons I object to this idolization of “leaders” & glorification of people for how they look.

The Halo effect - if you like someone (perhaps just because they are aesthetically pleasing to the eye), you are more likely to be agreeable to them. A classic example would be you have a big crush on someone, so you just say yes, blush and smile. I am not saying we should be going in the other direction and bullying people that we like (also not ok).

Vanity Bias - assuming that because someone looks good and appeasing that they would also be a good person - this is incredibly biased and not representative.

An example of this (with a very small sample size of only ~64 people) is a study of mock interviews, where attractive people were more likely to be hired than less attractive individuals. [1] Another study showed that attractiveness can also influence judgments about the seriousness of crimes committed, depending on the crime itself [2]. 

Mere-exposure effect - we tend to develop a preference for things that are familiar to us, also known as the familiarity principle. If people look similar, we are more likely to prefer them, again decreasing the amount of diversity in the group. 

Cues of Kinship - if you look similar to someone, you are likely to act prosocially towards them, as you are likely to share genes and have common descendants. It seems important to be cognisant of this bias so we can do our best to avoid it. As this could create a very undiverse space within the EA community, and I think there is plenty of reasons why a diverse community is important. [4, 5] 

Physical attractiveness has important social consequences, and I think it’s better to point them out rather than leave them unspoken! 

Diversity - diverse opinions are crucial to highly performing structures and decision-making.

When you have racially diverse groups of people, people have more rigorous decision-making methods. Also, related to this “Big Tent” effective altruism is very important (particularly right now) & World View Diversification.

Cultesque - this type of idolization of someone because of their appearance reminds me of people with statues and posters of themselves everywhere, etc. Not that EA has statues (that I know of), but I think some people in the community would happily put large posters of certain EA members around the place, which I find strange.

Also, they aren’t the most attractive people in the world.

Possible personal bias: I am probably still hung up on my University experiences, which would make my opinions particularly emotionally charged, in addition to my desire to be more than my looks.

Other examples of when a focus on aesthetics is bad (not specifically within the EA community)

  • It creates greater levels of tribalism. How someone looks seems like possibly the worst way to signal if someone is right or wrong.
  • You can’t change (the majority) of how you look (although, of course, there are some exceptions - Michael Jackson), and you shouldn’t be penalized for something you can’t change IMO.
  • When Vitalik Buterin was bullied for his photo in Times magazine. It has nothing to do with what he has achieved and contributed to this world.
     

What to do about it?

Here are my current best guesses...
1. Not making jokes about finding someone attractive, and if you do this, try to recognize this and prevent your self doing it next time!
2. Noticing if other people do it and call them out! They might not realise they are doing this (feel free to reference this article).
3. Hold all people to high levels of epistemic rigor! 

I'd love to hear in the comments about possible ways to mitigate these problems!

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19 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:41 PM

I think we should eliminate any discussion of attractiveness from professional spaces (as is the norm among professional spaces generally, I'd hope), but... not all EA spaces are professional spaces, and given especially that EAs often date within EA I think it's reasonable to have a normal, respectful amount of discussion of physical appearance in social spaces (while at the same time agreeing with you that ranking every nearby woman by physical attractiveness is not respectful and I'm on board with calling that kind of thing out as inappropriate in any context).

I agree we should avoid fixating on it, overvaluing it, or letting our preferences for physical appearances leak into any other part of our opinion of a person, but I think suppressing it altogether is too much. It's part of how people interact with the world and I think trying to deny that it exists isn't ultimately healthy.

I agree that I'd rather we not completely censor jokes completely, but I find it very difficult to guess what people are comfortable with, in part because I think it's very hard to say, "No I'm not comfortable with discussion of my appearance" as a public figure. I wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable speaking up if people were joking about me anyways.

People will always notice how other people look, and people will always try to look attractive if they can pull it off. That much is unavoidable and I don't think it makes much sense to try to fight it. As you point out, some of the statements you mentioned are jokes.

That being said, I think EA leaders who find themselves targets of this sort of veneration ought to express outward annoyance towards it, in a way that feels serious rather than jocular. Every movement has the tendency to idolize some small cadre of leaders; and in this movement, especially, we need to avoid that as much as possible. Prominent EAs frequently say that this isn't "their movement" and that they don't set all the directions, presumably to discourage people from thinking too much of them. As public figures, they should say the same thing about their looks.

Declaring things publicly can draw too much attention to it, so I'm not sure that's the best strategy. Rather, it likely makes sense for their annoyance to be declared privately in response to specific instances of this problem. Maybe this is already happening; I'm not sure.

“I also think some of the statements you're recounting are partially a joke.“ Since Florence repeatedly explicitly states that they are branded as jokes, I’m curious why you meant to infer by putting this in your comment.

Yes you're right, I edited the phrasing to be more what I meant.

I'll admit to having laughed along with the Twitter jokes, but I think you're right that avoiding this  would be a good norm to have and that the ill effects outweigh whatever fun/ingroupy camaraderie we might get from it. I'll do my best to discourage it as a group leader and community member.

Halo effect and cultishness seem especially important: it's crucial that we give the arguments of leaders (and attractive people, leaders or otherwise) the same degree of scrutiny as everyone else, and I remember a few newer EAs from my group who came to EAG and thought it was weird that SBF's face was everywhere and that people were joking about his "beautiful face" having been on the cover of Forbes and such. I thought this was clearly in good fun but they thought it was cultish.

I agree with what others have said so far, but want to add two things.

  • I don't think  discussion of male EA attractiveness is an equity issue. (The post intro describes a group of men commenting on women, which is unique for well-understood reasons.) It might be unprofessional in certain contexts, but it doesn't speak to (e.g.) gender based hostility in the way that the post intro does.
  • Attractive people, given the Halo Effect and Vanity Bias, are apparently more equipped to communicate than are unattractive people. This seems like something to exploit rather than suppress. 

The baseline emotional reaction is one that I share, but the proposed solutions might be too optimistic about why attractive people are advantaged.

Downvoted because I don't feel like there's any substance here and it's not worth spending the time to read. I think most people already agree with this sentiment and know the arguments presented in one way or another, so it feels like this post is just flashing the applause lights.

I'd probably have at least not downvoted and maybe would have upvoted this post if it contained some new content, like a proposal for how to get people not to glorify looks.

I disagree - I haven't seen any discussion of this, and the arguments come off as earnest and not as applause lights.

There's no reason a person can't be both earnest and still be hitting the applause light button. Intent matters, but so does outcomes.

I don't recall recent EA discussion of this topic, but this is an extremely well-worn topic in general. This is sort of a professionalism 101 topic that most people debate in high school as something of a toy topic because the arguments are already well explored.

Almost everything that gets posted on the Forum has already been explored somewhere else. That doesn't make it worth downvoting.

In isolation I agree. But I found nothing new or interesting in this post. Since votes control how visible a post is, I view votes as purely a signal about how much I want to see and how much I want others to see content like this. Since I didn't find it new or interested it was a poor use of my time to read it, hence the down vote.

When I down vote I like to tell people why so they have useful feedback on what makes people down vote.

I know many people vote to say "yay" or "boo". I disagree with this voting style, and my votes generally should not be interpreted that way. I down vote to say "I don't think you should bother reading this" and I up vote to say "I think you should read this".

I think just writing a post can lead to some of the changes you want to see.

One example being the "It's really really hard to get hired by an EA organisation". Having that exist and be spread amongst people was able to start changing expectations that people had.

I also think even if most people already agree, there are some people haven't thought about the subject of this post and may change their behaviour after having read it. I have seen a few examples of this on Twitter and in person before.

I agree, but is this a post that will make that change? I don't see any really compelling arguments or stories here that are likely to change minds.

One person has already commented saying they will change how they act.

Wonderful! A great way to be proven wrong!

I disagree that this is an applause light, since an opposing claim like "communities are better when they have more jokes as long as these don't make people feel unwelcome" is pretty reasonable too. And including a proposal for how to change the norm seems like a bad bar, since posting on the EA Forum is probably the first plank that would occur to me in a plan to change the norms.

Further evidence that it's not an applause light: vast majority of respondents to this Twitter poll about the subject say the jokes have not crossed a line: https://twitter.com/nathanpmyoung/status/1557811908555804674?s=21&t=wdOUd5m4d_ZqiJ-12TLM9Q

Good point. I agree that it's important to have steps to mitigate this! 

Happy to discuss in the comments ways in which we could try to reduce this. Here is my current best guess:
1. Not making jokes about finding someone attractive, and if you do this, try to recognize this and prevent your self doing it next time!
2. Noticing if other people do it and call them out! They might not realise they are doing this (feel free to reference this article).
3. Hold all people to high levels of epistemic rigor.