Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

Debunking the Blackpill - Part One: "Looks are everything, personality is nothing"

Debunking the Blackpill - Part One: "Looks are everything, personality is nothing"

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 It’s impossible to debunk a theory to the point that even its most tenacious adherent must give up. The very existence today of people who still believe that the Earth is flat or was created 5000 years ago indicates the futility of that endeavour. The most fervent believer can always find some way to continue believing. Precisely why that is the case is the subject both of a previous essayand also of a future piece which draws on Samuel Gershman’s new paper, “How to never be wrong”, as well as the Lakatosian epistemic framework which presumably inspired him.

Instead of looking at the nitty-gritty of unpicking beliefs, I want to do what incels claim their opponents never do: engage with their arguments. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the objections I raise here will be deemed insufficient: they might be dismissed as biased, their premises may be denied, their use of evidence criticised, or their theoretical framework found to be lacking. Regardless, any incel or other blackpilled user reading this should know that the arguments I make are made in good faith. One of the most frustrating things for users in these communities is the belief that nobody takes their arguments seriously, and that most advice tells them to “work on their personality”, “take a shower”, or “just be patient - there’s somebody out there for everyone”. When you feel as though the world is rejecting you, and you think you’re a deeply ugly human (in however many ways), those aren’t comforting things to hear, because they sound like empty words. 

But I have some sympathy with some of the beliefs that incels hold: it is almost certainly true that a lot of people are judged on looks, and that those judgements transfer over to other aspects of the person we’re judging, such as moral character. Even in popular culture - The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the first thing that comes to mind - it’s a common trope that people judge others by their looks. It’s also straightforwardly true that some people are generally perceived as better looking than others, and that’s a preference which is shared by a majority of people. I’m not here to argue that looks - and particularly facial appearance, which is a big incel talking point - mean nothing. Rather, in this series I’m going to contest the blackpill arguments on a number of different premises.

With that preamble out of the way, each of these pieces should be fairly short. The blackpill itself can’t be thoroughly refuted, for the reasons stated above. Instead, I’ll be taking one argument, piece of evidence, or facet of the theory, and showing why it doesn’t show what they think it does in each instance. Just for fun, I’ll be giving Blackpill Corroboration Ratings as we go along.

Personality vs Looks

First up, from the Blackpill 101 series on incels.me, written by the user Kokoro. The text of this infographic reads:

“Personality Vs. Looks: On July 24th, 2014 OkCupid released info showing a direct correlation between a person’s looks and their personality. [Image shows a scatter plot of “personality score” vs. “looks score”, with a strong direct correlation between the two]. To confirm their findings, they showed profile photos with and without text and allowed people to rate. These were the results. [Image shows a scatter plot of “rating with profile picture” against “rating without profile picture”, where again there is a strong direct correlation between the two]. In the words of OkCupid… Your picture is worth that fabled thousand words, but your actual words are worth… almost nothing.”

 The Blackpill 101: "Personality means nothing, looks mean everything"

The Blackpill 101: "Personality means nothing, looks mean everything"


The source they draw upon is a post from the now defunct blog by the makers of dating site OkCupid, OkTrends, titled “We Experiment on Human Beings!”. You can find it here: http://archive.li/QNCbf

To add insult to injury, the blog post was recently removed from the internet, right after a significant number of incels had latched onto it as “proof” of the blackpill. That, to them, obviously seemed like damning evidence.

This infographic supposedly supports the tenet of lookism: the idea that people (and men particularly) are the subject of systematic discrimination based on how they look. 

Let’s dive in, looking at the blog post in its entirety, with the context provided by the authors. There are three experiments, two of which are relevant.

First Experiment: is love blind? Drawing on OkCupid data

The post describes a number of different “experiments” that OkCupid ran on their users. The first was called “Love is Blind Day”. On January 15, 2013, they removed all the pictures from OkCupid profiles. All of their site metrics went down enormously - far fewer people used it that day - but those who stayed on responded to first messages more often, went deeper in conversation, and exchanged contact details more quickly. However, once photos were reinstated, the deep conversations melted away - in the words of the authors, “like we’d turned on the bright lights at the bar at midnight”. 

So far, so good for the blackpill. What then happened was that the owner of the site went on the blind dating app that they had built (Love is Blind Day was meant to be a celebration of the app launch). What they found was that once users went on a blind date, they had a good time regardless of how good-looking their partner was. If anything, women had a slightly worse time with a man they rated as more attractive. But the online reaction of those same women to men was just as judgemental as anyone else’s: the likelihood they responded to a first message from a man increased as his looks began to “outmatch” hers*. The conclusion they draw is the people are just as judgemental as their technology allows them to be.

The conclusion that we can reach, then, is that women (and men) are not inherently “lookist”. Instead, they become more or less “shallow” based on the information available to them. In a situation where pictures are placed prominently, they are far more likely to judge someone on the basis of them. The further conclusion is that apps like Tinder enable this kind of judgement: by focussing on appearance rather than anything else (and allowing people to focus primarily on appearance) they facilitate the development of a culture where people are chosen primarily on that basis. 

Blackpill Corroboration Rating: 3/10. Looks are important, but not intrinsically. The blackpill is very explicit that its claims are non-situational, and all women are like that, all the time.

Second Experiment: are personality and looks the same thing?

The second experiment is spicier: it’s the one quoted in the infographic. Here’re the details. Earlier on in OkCupid’s life, users were given two separate scales to rate users: “looks” and “personality”. They had to rate them in order to be able to message them or move on to the next match. That gave them a large data pool. The results they got, which they say indicated they had a “flawed understanding of human nature”, do indeed show that people had a strong tendency to rate a person’s personality in the same bracket as they rated their looks.

 The Blackpill 101: OKCupid graphic on "looks" vs "personality"

The Blackpill 101: OKCupid graphic on "looks" vs "personality"

They point out the absurdity of this: there’s a photo of an almost-naked woman, who is presumably very attractive, who’s had her personality rated in the 99th percentile in spite of the fact that her profile says absolutely nothing.

They go on to “confirm their hunch”. They replaced the two scales with a single one, and then took a small sample of users and hid the profile text of their matches half of the time. They generated two independent sets of scores: one for “picture and text together” and one for “picture without text”. The correlation is high: their conclusion is that “the text is less than 10% of what people think about you”. 

 Blackpill 101: OKCupid ratings with and without profile text

Blackpill 101: OKCupid ratings with and without profile text

Now, this might sound damning. For incels, it is: this is seen by many as definitive proof that personality matters not at all, and looks are paramount. But let’s take a closer look.

  1. They conducted one experiment, which was to show people pictures with and without the profile text. They found that the ratings were the same. There was no follow-up experiment in which they showed profile texts, with and without pictures. That would give us some indication of whether looks are everything, or whether they just mean a lot when they are the most visually outstanding feature of a profile.
  2. Fortunately, we have a similar experiment to the one they didn’t run. It was the first experiment in this blog post. There, they blinded people to the appearance of the people they were talking to, and found that they talked to more people, for longer, on deeper topics, and were quicker to exchange contact details. The indication there is that profile text, in the absence of a picture, is actually incredibly important and can lead to successful dates. Even if we accept the conclusion that looks matter when we’re presented with looks and text, we also have to accept the conclusion that it’s not the whole story.
  3. The data don’t tell us that people don’t care about a person’s personality. Rather, they tell us that they don’t look at their profile text before making a rating of them. So looks matter initially, but we actually have no indication as to what they think of a person’s personality, because they haven’t engaged with them at all.
  4. Concluding “your looks are your personality” is unsound. Instead, the proper conclusion is this: in a sample of users of an online dating site (who may or may not be representative of the population as a whole), in a context where people are specifically searching for someone they find attractive and might want to date, there was a significant correlation between the initial rating that they gave to a person’s looks and their personality because they didn’t look at the text of their profile before making an assessment. At the very most, that means a person’s character is initially judged by their looks. It tells us precisely nothing about how they are assessed after that.

The argument I would make here is not that looks are not important to a lot of people in a lot of contexts. Rather, they are situationally important, and how important they can be (and the role they play in the assessment of other traits) is contingent on the focus which falls on them as a result of technology or other constraints.

Blackpill Corroboration Rating: 5/10. Yes, looks matter. But it’s an unsound inference to go from this experiment to the conclusion that “all women judge all men primarily and forever on the basis of their appearance”.

So far, it’s not looking good for the blackpill.


*Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that this relies on a “looks matching” assessment by the folks at OkCupid. That is, they asked a pool of users to rate the looks of a whole set of other users, and then they aggregated the results. There are a number of potential issues with this which I don’t want to go into here, but don’t think it’s gone unnoticed.

Debunking the Blackpill Part Two: "Looks matter more than anything"

Debunking the Blackpill Part Two: "Looks matter more than anything"

A Definitive Guide to Incels Part Five: Why are Incels becoming more extreme?

A Definitive Guide to Incels Part Five: Why are Incels becoming more extreme?