Would you trust an attractive stranger in a business suit carrying a briefcase, believing that he or she was intelligent and trustworthy? According to research, not only would you trust them, you would probably even lend them money if they asked. Why? Because as much as we know we shouldn’t, we judge books by their covers. This subconscious tendency causes us to assume well-dressed, attractive strangers are respectable and credible. Some of them are; but not everyone. As I have learned the hard way through decades of prosecuting good-looking, well-dressed manipulators, people are easily fooled.
Appearances cause us to jump to conclusions about someone without knowing anything else. Consider three primary ways that looks can be deceiving: by causing us to jump to conclusions, to assume clothing conveys character, and by fueling favoritism.
1. Judge a Book by More than Its Cover
Judging by appearances is not a new phenomenon. When Samuel visited Jesse of Bethlehem, because the Lord had chosen one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king, he viewed the first son and thought he was the one, perhaps believing he “looks like a king.” However, God spoke to Samuel, saying, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him,” explaining that “people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Although the Bible clearly recognizes physical beauty, attractiveness does not always equate with righteousness: “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor” (Ezekiel 28:17). Consider the physical description of Absalom, who revolted against his father King David: “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him” (2 Samuel 14:25). Compare that to the prophetic description of Jesus: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).
When the view is good, we look but don’t listen or learn. Big mistake. Appreciating the tendency to jump to conclusions based on what we see should cause us to move slower and actually open the book, resisting the urge to judge based on the cover.
2. Clothing Does Not Convey Character
If a defendant is charged with being a sexual predator, jurors expect to see a creepy-looking ice cream truck driver in a trench coat with pockets full of candy. Instead, they see a handsome man dressed to impress in a pin-striped business suit with a monogrammed briefcase. Some of the most dangerous men I have prosecuted were also the best dressed, looking like they should be trading on Wall Street rather than testifying on a witness stand.
Just as we are warned to “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15), wolves in sharp clothing in the courtroom are dressed for deception; that is how they got away with their crimes. Sure enough, speaking with my jurors after trial, some admit that their verdicts were based not on evidence but appearance. “He didn’t look like a criminal, so we decided he was not guilty.” Apparently although Lady Justice is blind, jurors are not. Criminals who “dress for success” sometimes succeed, unless we stop and consider the character behind the clothes.
3. Fueling Favoritism
We must resist the tendency to treat people differently based on what they wear. The book of James cautions readers not to bestow special attention through offering premium seating to a man wearing fine clothes and a gold ring over a poor man wearing old, filthy clothes (see James 2:2–4). Although we are reminded that the body is about more than clothes (see Matthew 6:25), we instinctively tend to respond positively to individuals in attractive attire.
Yet when we judge disposition through designer wear, we are often wrong. Credibility can be a costume; our goal is to perceive the character behind the clothes, because anyone can dress the part. And remember Peter’s advice to women, reminding us not to pursue flash over substance: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3–4).
To make wise choices when evaluating the trustworthiness and credibility of someone else, consider more than attire. Being aware of the ways in which looks can be deceiving will allow you to more accurately perceive the person behind the polished persona, and respond accordingly.
© 2023 Wendy Patrick, PhD author of “Why Bad Looks Good: Biblical Wisdom to Make Smart Choices in Life, Love, and Friendship” (BroadStreet Publishing)