SOCIAL AND CULTURAL DEFINITIONS OF PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS.
Millions of people believe that fat people are jolly, that people with high foreheads are intelligent, that red heads are hot-tempered, and that people with large jaws are forceful. Many such folk beliefs have been proved untrue when tested empirically but occasionally a valid association is found. For example, one researcher [Bar, 1977] compared a sample of redheads with a control group with various hair color, and reported that redheads actually are more often hot-tempered and aggressive. He suggests a genetic link between this physical characteristic (red hair) and these personality traits (hot tempers, aggressiveness). But even if his statistical associations are confirmed by replication studies, has a genetic link been proven? There is another possible explanation. Each physical characteristic is socially and culturally defined in every society. For example, fat girls are admired in Dahomey.
A physical characteristic can make one a beautiful person in one society and an ugly duckling in another. Therefore, a particular physical characteristic becomes a factor in personality development according to how it is defined and treated in one’s society and by one’s reference groups. If redheads are expected to have hot tempers and are excused for their temper tantrums, it should not be surprising if they develop hot tempers. As indicated earlier, people respond to the behavior expectations of others, and tend to become whatever other people expect them to become.
It is always possible, of course, that there really is a genetic link between a particular physical trait and a behavior trait. In most
cases, however, any statistical association is probably due to social and cultural reaction to the physical trait. The most useful test is that of universality. If, for example, lantern jawed people were found to be highly aggressive in all societies, then we would suspect a genetic basis. But if this association were found in only a few societies, then we would suspect that the lantern-jawed individual developed aggressiveness in response to social expectations. To conclude, it is seldom the physical trait itself but the social expectations it arouses which produce certain behavior traits.