Are Ugly People Crime Prone? Loughner Edition

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/20/2011 10:11:00 AM
To begin with, let me say that I obviously don't have conclusive survey evidence that now-famous Arizona gunman Jared Loughner--on whom I'll have more about shortly--is widely regarded as "ugly." It must be said, though, that there has been a general public outcry over his prison mugshot. The vacant stare and mad grin are widely noted, but also consider the cracked smile, crooked nose, and general lack of facial symmetry. I doubt whether most of you out there would disagree that this guy is not the most aesthetically pleasing fellow. Which brings me to a longstanding body of research that should shed light on the link between lack of physical attractiveness and violence. Some may view this notion as prejudice plain and simple, but the thing is that widespread beliefs of the sort may systematically bias economic opportunities for Loughnerites. In fact, two Turkish-American economists, Naci Mocan and Erdal Tekin, have already done research on related matters in the context of young American criminals in "Ugly Criminals." Here is the longer abstract:
Using data from three waves of Add Health we find that being very attractive reduces a young adult's (ages 18-26) propensity for criminal activity and being unattractive increases it for a number of crimes, ranging from burglary to selling drugs. A variety of tests demonstrate that this result is not because beauty is acting as a proxy for socio-economic status. Being very attractive is also positively associated adult vocabulary test scores, which suggests the possibility that beauty may have an impact on human capital formation. We demonstrate that, especially for females, holding constant current beauty, high school beauty (pre-labor market beauty) has a separate impact on crime, and that high school beauty is correlated with variables that gauge various aspects of high school experience, such as GPA, suspension or having being expelled from school, and problems with teachers.

These results suggest two handicaps faced by unattractive individuals. First, a labor market penalty provides a direct incentive for unattractive individuals toward criminal activity. Second, the level of beauty in high school has an effect on criminal propensity 7-8 years later, which seems to be due to the impact of the level of beauty in high school on human capital formation, although this second avenue seems to be effective for females only.
Still, the Loughner case is perhaps contextually different in that he didn't commit his crime for economic reasons. Then again, the US Army is said to have turned him down due to being unfit for service, reflecting decreased employment opportunities for such people. Which brings us to a sociology review article entitled "Never Pick a Fight With an Ugly Person, They've Got Nothing to Lose" that argues along similar lines:
In the 1970s, social psychologists conducted numerous studies analyzing physical appearance as a social variable. More recent studies in the social sciences appear to have abandoned this topic as unimportant; in any case, very few social scientific studies have been found that incorporate a measure of attractiveness into their analyses. The present study seeks to revive the emphasis on physical attractiveness as a social variable by testing the relationship between crime severity and physical attractiveness, i.e., by presenting evidence to suggest that physically unattractive men commit more serious offenses.
Given how radically fat Americans have become (and the rest of the developed world has followed suit to be fair), there is certainly room here for interesting research--especially on the economic consequences. For instance, does the uglification of the general population implied by exploding rates of obesity decrease or increase the beauty premium? On one hand, you can hypothesize that the beauty premium is attenuated given how portly everyone has become--we're all ugly Americans now. On the other hand, the increasing scarcity of fit, trim folks may increase returns to being so in a society of fatties.

Given that mine is purportedly an IPE blog, consider this: ugliness may exacerbate the US trade deficit insofar as those like Jared Loughner and Cho Seung-Hui prefer Austrian-made Glock 19s. Further, these incidences beget even more sales of these plastic fantastics. Now there's the real Freakonomics for you. Certainly, American gun culture isn't disappearing anytime soon.