Jan 1, 2008

Koppenhaver's Precept of (Un)Attractiveness

- Circa 1999 -

The setting was pretty common for a Sunday afternoon in Ithaca. A group of guys lounging on the porch of a soon-to-be condemned house slouched over tattered 1940s era furniture in their underwear. It's a photograph that rarely makes it to the final press of college brochures but one of the few images I can vividly remember from those four years on the hill. We partook in the age old tradition of attaching meaning to our lives by ways of inane and pointless conversation. The gawking of passersby brought up the regionally important "Why are there so few attractive women in Ithaca?" conundrum, a subject of conversation that came up at least once a day. Normally the issue was put forth, met by a few nods of agreement, and then left quietly undisputed. But that day Ithaca's most disappointing truth turned into something different. Something important.

WK was a freckly fine arts major armed with a fiery, outspoken demeanor. His artistic
tendencies provided well-needed contrast to the pragmatic white collar aspirations of his housemates. But on that afternoon he set down his paintbrush and unbeknownst to him, began speaking like a doctorate in sociology. He started outlining qualitative evidence for his theory that the people of the world, not just Ithacan women, were generally unattractive. His accompanying numerical rating system, which I've dubbed Koppenhaver's Precept of (Un)Attractiveness, accurately fit this dim outlook for aesthetic beauty.

Scienticians are always building models for the purpose of fitting and predicting observed data.
A normally distributed set of data, also known as The Bell Curve, is one of statistics' most recognizable assertions. In a normal distribution a majority of observed data is grouped around the mean (or average) with fewer and fewer data points symmetrically trailing off in either direction. For example, if you asked a group of American Caucasian males their height you'd likely find the results to be normally distributed, with most respondents grouped around the average answer of 5'9" and very few people registering below 5'0" or above 6'6". If you charted the results of this survey you'd see a bell shape resembling this chart's blue line (vertical Y axis = % of people who responded within the corresponding height range, horizontal X axis = height). But not everything fits neatly inside a bell shaped normal distribution. The also popular lognormal distribution is defined by more parameters, making its asymmetric shape capable of fitting other complex natural and sociological phenomena. A good example of this distribution is American annual incomes. From a range of $0 to $1,000,000,000 it's not hard to imagine many data points gathered around $40-50k with fewer and fewer points trailing off towards higher sums. The red line on the chart shows a generic lognormal distribution that would resemble the graphed results of this data set (vertical Y axis = % of people who responded within the corresponding annual income range, horizontal X axis = annual incomes).

WK's simple yet poignant assertion is that human attractiveness, much like American annual incomes, is described by a lognormal distribution, not normally as is commonly believed. The classic method of rating one's attractiveness is by use of the simple zero to ten scale with ten being the most attractive. Without giving it much thought people typically gravitate towards a normally distributed scale, assigning ratings that have a central tendency around the middle grade of five. In WK's distribution a five should consider a career in modeling. According to Koppenhaver's Precept of (Un)Attractiveness most people register in the two to three range, with exponentially fewer people occupying slots approaching ten. "I've never actually seen a seven in person, and a perfect ten probably doesn't exist," he asserted that afternoon.

From that point on I decided to adopt this rating methodology. Fortunately, the superficial exercise of attractiveness rating comes up less and less often as you get older. Imagine having to explain to your girlfriend why a rating of four out of ten is actually quite flattering! After logging almost eight years in New York City I now wonder if I've ever seen an eight or a nine in the flesh. Whenever I overhear someone make a comment like “She’s a perfect ten,” or “He’s just a six, nothing special,” I think back to that sunny Sunday and laugh.

1 comment:

McM said...

I quite enjoyed this post.