Getting Arrested is Not Pretty

Photo: iStockphoto

In the excellent police procedural Nemesis Jo Nesbø includes the line, “Good police officers are ugly.”  This might be true, but I don’t see why the skills of a good police officer are negatively correlated with the police officer’s looks.  The only argument might be the same one used in a recent paper by Naci Mocan and Erdal Tekin, which showed that robbers are unusually ugly.  That finding makes sense—ugliness might intimidate victims and make the crime easier to commit.  So too perhaps for police ugliness intimidating crooks; but a policeman’s ugliness might also scare upright citizens and make the job harder.  More generally, I’m always amazed at the low correlations between different characteristics across occupations — so much of occupational choice depends on idiosyncratic individual preferences and productivity.


Maybe robbers are ugly because bad-looking people are much less successful in the "straight" world, get lower pay, less frequent raises, etc.

John B.

Ugly and stupid? I've read that police departments prefer candidates who aren't terribly smart. Police work consists of a lot of boredom and monotony and intelligent people don't handle that very well.


As to the correlation between ugliness and criminals, I can see at least two other possible reasons beyond the added intimidation skills.

First, looks are positively correlated with income, and so those with significantly lower than normal levels of attractiveness will likely have a hard time making a living through typical, legal jobs, leaving illegal activities as a necessity.

Second, it could be that the crime (and associated activities) causes the degradation in attractiveness. Drugs and alcohol abuse tend to have a deleterious effect on one's looks. Disfigurements from fights, and a possible general lack of care about personal hygiene that is correlated with low income (for that, causation could go either way, but correlation is strongly positive) may also tend toward uglier criminals.

This suggests a possible explanation for ugly policemen - lower incomes typical for policemen (a HUGE bit of stupidity in our elected officials, IMO) will tend to push out more attractive policemen (and policewomen) as more lucrative careers are more easily acquired by more attractive people.



With respect to your second contention, doesnt that prove that there are more ugly policemen as against handsome ones, which is different from the hypothesis of this post, which talks about the best policeman being an ugly one?


I don't think I've seen anyone cite one person so much. Mr Hamermesh is cited all over Mocan and Tekin's paper. Wow.


Ugliness may have correlate with many factors, higher levels of various hormones, imbalanced developmental processes etc. it makes sense that these same factors affect one'd behaviour.

Or perhaps we have been conditioned to call beautiful those markers that correlate with good behaviour.


"Or perhaps we have been conditioned to call beautiful those markers that correlate with good behaviour."


Finding correlation is "easy". Figuring out the causation is the hard part!


A beautiful person can get away with it, even a crime, ugly people don't


Good point Julian, I read recently that two studies in UK and US found that courts were more lenient towards female defendants than male defendants. Perhaps juries and judges also favour more attractive defendants.


It's interesting that in the 19th century some observers talked about physical attributes supposedly associated with criminals: protruding lower jaws, high cheekbones and so on. Back then these were sometimes based on racist concepts, that troublesome ethnic or socioeconomic groups had biologically-inherited criminal traits.

Later that was abandoned and by the time I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s we were warned not to judge a book by its cover, that the appearance of an individual is a poor indicator of their behaviour. So I'm interested to see that criminals may indeed have physical attributes in common (ugliness), if not for the same reasons as once believed!


For those who are curious, it is a book being referred to: