Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is accused of setting bombs in Boston that killed three people, including an eight-year-old boy, and that maimed many others. He seems like the perfect villain. But in a blog post on Slate, Hanna Rosin writes about the warmth and compassion directed toward Tsarnaev by certain teen-age girls and, weirdly, by motrs: “In the past week and a half I have not been to a school pickup, birthday, book party, or dinner where one of my mom friends has not said some version of ‘I feel sorry for that poor kid.’ ”
Rosin explores different explanations for this reaction, suggesting that it stems from how Tsarnaev was initially described—“a hapless genial pothead being coerced into killing by his sadistic older brother.” But she later settles on an account which I believe is both unsettling and correct: “Dzhokhar is cute.” In a recent discussion with Robert Wright, the law professor and blogger Ann Althouse makes a similar point, commenting, sarcastically, on the media coverage: “Look at this Boston bombing. The pictures of those two brothers. Aren’t they cute?”
Psychologists have long observed the importance given to the face. The most striking demonstration I know of has to do with how competent one looks. The psychologist Alexander Todorov and his colleagues showed people black-and-white headshots of the winners and runner-ups in elections for various House and Senate races. After ensuring that their subjects were unfamiliar with the politicians, the psychologists simply asked: Who looks more competent? Over two thirds of the time, subjects selected the photo of the winning candidate.
Tsarnaev might not look particularly competent, but he is attractive—Althouse describes him as “a hot-looking young man.” Many studies have confirmed that individuals with attractive faces are judged to be happier, kinder, and more intelligent than their homelier counterparts; they are paid more, and are treated better in just about every venue of life. Experiments with simulated juries find that, when the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence. Even better for Tsarnaev, he is baby-faced: studies find that baby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth...Never mind the parents. There are silly girls who go wild for Joker.
Or should we call him Justin?
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