Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Social Punishment of Samantha Brick

An interesting thing happened this week in the world of collective human behavior. But before we go into that, let me ask you two questions: Have you heard of Samantha Brick? On a scale of 1 to 10, how attractive do you think she is?

Samantha Brick, a journalist, wrote an article for the Daily Mail called “'There are downsides to looking this pretty': Why women hate me for being beautiful”. Naturally, the response to hearing a story like this is, “Well, what does she look like?” Luckily for us, she graciously included many photos of herself for us to assess… and the collective assessment was apparently not what Samantha Brick had expected.

The internet and Twitter practically exploded with snarky Samantha Brick comments. The Daily Mail had to shut down the comments section on the article after collecting almost 6000 comments, mostly emphasizing how unattractive she is. A new Twitter hashtag, #samanthabrickfacts, appeared with notable one-liners such as, “James Blunt wrote 'You’re beautiful' after he briefly caught sight of Samantha Brick in a crowded place. #samanthabrickfacts” and “What was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? A photo of Samantha Brick. #samanthabrickfacts”. Even major media outlets in the UK (where Brick is from) and the United States picked up on the internet storm and added their own two cents (Tamron Hall on the Today Show thought it funny that “some people think she looks like Chucky the Doll”).

On a television interview on ITV about the backlash, Brick explained, “Women do not like attractive women, and that has been proved to me by the thousands of vile messages I’ve had on Twitter, the thousands of vile emails I’ve had to my personal account, the messages I’ve had on my own answer phones.” But Samantha Brick has a very different explanation for the backlash than almost everybody else. Barbara Walters on The View summed up the more popular explanation, “At the risk of being really not so nice, she’s got a problem. She’s not that beautiful. OK?”

In other words, Samantha Brick advertised herself as having a high attractiveness (with all the benefits that would include), when in fact her true attractiveness is moderate. In the animal world, this phenomenon is called dishonest signals, and it is believed to elicit social punishment in many animal species. Elizabeth Tibbetts and Amanda Izzo at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor elegantly demonstrated this effect in Polistes dominulus wasps.

In Polistes dominulus wasps, aggressive contests are used to determine dominance among nest-founding queens. As with any aggressive contest, animals can benefit if they can assess their opponent’s abilities prior to risking getting their butt kicked. In this species, the “brokenness” of facial patterns is used as a signal to provide information about the wasp’s fighting abilities: Wasps with more broken facial patterns (high signal) are usually better fighters (high ability). Additionally, wasps with more juvenile hormone (that’s actually what it’s called) tend to be better fighters.

Portraits of five different Polistes dominulus females arranged from
low signal and low fighting ability (left) to high signal and high fighting ability (right).
Images from Tibbetts' and Izzo's 2010 Current Biology paper.

The researchers created a mismatch of facial markings and fighting ability in wasps by painting their faces to alter their signals and by giving them a compound similar to juvenile hormone to alter their fighting abilities. This created four groups of wasps: wasps that had a low fighting ability and low signal, wasps that had a high fighting ability and high signal, wasps that had a low fighting ability and high signal, and wasps that had a high fighting ability and low signal.

Individuals that had facial patterns inaccurately signaling high fighting ability received more aggression from their fellow wasps than any other group. These individuals also had difficulty establishing stable dominance hierarchies, which led to more friction with the group. So there are social costs imposed on wasps that have dishonest signals that suggest they are better fighters than they really are. Interestingly, there were also social costs to individuals which showed dishonest signals that suggested they were worse fighters than they really were: Although they could behave dominantly, the other wasps were less likely to submit to them and the dominance conflicts were prolonged. In both cases, the mismatch of signal and ability led to social costs in the form of increased aggression.

In Samantha Brick’s case, her news story was her “signal”, which indicated her attractiveness to be a 10 (on a scale of 1 to 10). I took her pictures (the ones above) to a Milwaukee Brewers game and later to class to ask baseball fans and college students the two questions above: “Have you heard of Samantha Brick?” and “On a scale of 1 to 10, how attractive do you think she is?” On average, the people that had never heard of her gave her about a 7.5…not a 10, but not bad. But the people that had heard of her story gave her an average score of 5.5… a solid 2-point deduction. One young woman at the Brewers game explained her own version of the phenomenon, saying, “I think she’s an 8 or a 9. But I could never give someone a score lower than a 5 or 6 – That would just be mean”. When I told her about the article Brick wrote, the woman said, “Oh. She’s a 4.”

Interestingly, this effect was not just in women. Men also rated her attractiveness as significantly less when they knew of her article. And men wrote many of the negative comments found online and on Twitter. This backlash wasn’t because “women do not like attractive women” (although there is some complicated truth in that statement). This backlash was because Brick sent out a public dishonest signal that she is a 10, when in fact she is a 7.5, and the public responded to the mismatch with social aggression.

Want to know more? Check these out:

Tibbetts, E., & Izzo, A. (2010). Social Punishment of Dishonest Signalers Caused by Mismatch between Signal and Behavior Current Biology, 20 (18), 1637-1640 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.07.042

Etcoff, N. (1999). Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Anchor Books, New York, NY.


  1. Fascinating! So if she really was a 10 people would say "she's a bitch, but she's right." Or maybe they'd just read the article to find out the terrible burden of such beauty?

    1. People would probably still be a bit put off, but probably not so aggressive in their insults. Jessica Alba has made public comments about the difficulties she's had being taken seriously as an actress due to her good looks, and the response has generally been, "Ohh, boo hoo", not "You are ugly and a bad person".

  2. I wonder if there isn't some inherent classism in this, too. When Ani DiFranco wrote, "everyone harbours a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room," a lot of women took that as being highly liberating. But the words of a left-wing feminist punk rocker, and that of an unknown columnist from a trashy right-wing British tabloid, have wildly different effects on people, even when the message is fundamentally the same. People do hate Sam Brick, but they tend to hate the Daily Mail as well. Besides, I think Samantha Brick just misunderstood a lot of the subtleties and social cues about why her friends really rail on her, and it's probably more related to a flirtaceous personality. An extremely beautiful woman who is kind and sensitive rarely provokes outrage. But a moderately good looking woman who spends all of her time down the gym, and then spends the evening goggling over and giggling with someone else's husband or boyfriend in an attempt to appear witty and socialized (I am extrapolating that from Samantha Brick's comments in her article about the instances that women have been angry at her), tends to get people's backs up. The "it's not my fault I'm so pretty," comment just seems to hide an extreme lack of self-awareness, eg, "it's not my fault I have an annoying personality." Maybe Samantha Brick will now learn that she can actually change how women perceive her, and that it isn't out of her control after all... or will she be able to learn that harsh lesson?

    1. Very insightful, Maya. Whether or not Samantha Brick learns from this experience, let's hope other people do (without having to experience this backlash for themselves).

  3. I really do like your article Sarah Jane.
    And thanks to Maya's comment.