Disfigurement Paradox; Hacking Attraction

One characteristic of hackers is that they are generally sensitive to logical inconsistencies; for example, the WAT talk making its rounds points out comical seeming inconsistencies in javascript and ruby: Why should empty array plus empty array = empty string? A more stereotypical example is noticing plot holes in movies that undermine plausibility, e.g. the entire Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull movie.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the logic of relationships and dating. What follows is a paradox that reveals an inconsistency in our values.

Disfigurement Paradox

Imagine you are dating someone; she is attractive and funny and a perfect match for you. Over time, you fall deeply in love with her and eventually you get married. It is clear to you that she is the love of your life. Then, tragically, she is in a horrible auto accident by no fault of her own. She survives, but is horribly disfigured.

What do you do? You would hopefully stick by this person, this love of your life, even though you may no longer find her physically attractive. By this point in the relationship, what you most value about her are deeper qualities such as personality, sense of humor, and values. We would deem it shallow and perhaps even cowardly to leave only because of such a superficial trait.

Yet in the beginning of relationships such superficiality is the norm. That is, given the option of more attractive mates people tend not to date ugly people. At the limit case, I imagine it is a sad truth that those who are extremely disfigured and single find dating a significant challenge.

So what is inconsistent is that a key factor in beginning a relationship becomes increasingly unimportant as that relationship progresses; had your future spouse gotten disfigured before you met they would have likely been disqualified from your dating process. This is weird. It would be like if a key factor for hiring you for a job as a computer programmer was an orthogonal factor like how green your eyes were.

Biology imposes some weird things on us that we are tempted to accept as normal because it is ubiquitous as part of the human condition. We are attracted to weird things like hip ratios and facial symmetry because at one point these indicators were relevant to our survival and were encoded into our genes. Yet they don’t make sense any more. For example, obesity is a problem caused by our bodies being overly conservative, greedily storing energy just in case of a bad winter, because this made sense when we had to hunt and pizzas could not be delivered on demand.

Hacking Attraction

Imagine you were free of biological constraint, what would a replacement attraction system for dating look like? That is, if you could program what you were attracted to, what would it be? I would entirely discount physical appearance and focus on the merits of our intellectual matching, the quality of our conversation, our shared values.

The important thing would be that in this replacement system, I would not be turned off by ugliness. I might be aware of it, but I wouldn’t care. My ideals of attractiveness would simply be at odds with what biology intended.

As of right now, my heuristics for dating eliminate unfairly the ugly despite how unimportant that trait should be. It is a glaring biological hindrance that I am not strong enough to dispel. How would the world be better if we could reprogram attraction? Imagine if medical technology made such a thing possible? Would you allow yourself to reprogram your own attraction, or perhaps even your own pleasure circuits?

2 thoughts on “Disfigurement Paradox; Hacking Attraction

  1. I like your thought process here, questioning what’s really firmware rather than software in the brain. I’m a little intimidated by the idea of resetting a million years of evolution in order to be more inclusive of unattractive people. Could it be that deselecting the less attractive selects for some other evolutionary attribute in them? Just hypothesizing here, but what if the unattractive work to become more attractive by contributing to society, enhancing the non-appearance based attributes that attracts a mate?

    • Thanks, just being aware that sometimes our Biology imposes strange constraints on us can be an eye-opening experience. One thing to keep in mind about evolution is that it isn’t as high-minded as we aspire to be, and also it lags about a hundred thousand years behind us, so perhaps we shouldn’t always shy away from questioning it.

      For example, a man’s sex drive may cause him to cheat on his wife because his genes want him to diversify his offspring portfolio. Also, things that made sense 100,000 years ago no longer do; our sedentary lifestyles cause us to have to artificially “work out” in order to trick our bodies into accumulating muscle. Evolution isn’t perfect, and eye-glasses and appendix surgery are things we do already to lessen natural selection’s impact on us.

      My problem with appearance is that it is such a pervasive heuristic (perhaps especially for men) that many unattractive people, through no fault of their own, are summarily rejected from consideration. It may not be possible for them to enhance enough the other attributes because I feel like physical attraction is sometimes a minimal threshold that almost nothing else can make up for. However, why should they have to make up for it in the first place? What logical reason is there for physical attractiveness have on a relationship?

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