False facts that actually changed the world

We thought we could read a person’s character by their appearance, and it’s made us superficial jerks

We do it all the time, whether we know it or not. It’s the reason actors like Jason Statham have a job always playing the same type of character — because we think we know what kind of person he is by the way he looks. That’s the basic idea of physiognomy. The Iris, the official blog of the Getty Arts Foundation, says that physiognomy has its roots in the ancient world. Pythagoras was known for rejecting students if they didn’t look smart, and Aristotle wrote that people with broad faces were dumb … making even ancient brainiacs superficial jerks.

It wasn’t until Giambattista della Porta’s 17th century writings that the concepts of physiognomy were concretely defined, and it’s still why we call people “low-brow” or “stuck-up.” A Wired article says the scientific community largely called the whole thing bunk by the end of the 1600s. But that didn’t stop physiognomy from lingering on in various dangerous forms for a few more centuries.

According to that same Wired article, it was Cesare Lombroso who really did some serious, stupid damage. He was a criminologist writing in the 19th century, and he firmly believed that the world’s criminal element could be identified at a glance. How? By their ape-like appearance, their vestigial tails (you read that right), and their tattoos. So thanks, Mr. Lombroso, for reinforcing the horrible idea that you can and should totally judge a person based on appearance.