I grew up watching The Today Show with my mom every weekday morning as I got ready for school. It was a special routine we shared to ease the pain of early mornings; watching these lighthearted news anchors deliver (often) sweet stories and greet fans outside. I yearned to be one of those people holding signs with messages for loved ones back home.
Katie Couric and Matt Lauer were like the mom and dad of this on-air family, Ann Curry and Al Roker their responsible and goofy neighbors.
Lauer was the wholesome dad, the Danny Tanner of news. He seemed warm, casual, and reliable. Ever since I was a kid, that’s what Lauer has represented to me. The most wholesome man in TV news. That is, until Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2017, when we learned the story of the lewd life he was secretly leading.
As the stories of his sexual misconduct unfolded, something within my perception of him began to change. I had always thought of Lauer as wholesome, professional, good looking. But over the course of last week, that same crooked smile, that buzzed head, those warm eyes took on an entirely different image: He looked creepy.
But how is that possible?
Certainly, Lauer’s look hasn’t changed so dramatically that quickly. Not to mention, most of the photos being posted were old stock shots — pictures in which he once looked warm. Now in those same images, he looked like a different man.
Of course he represents something completely different to me now; but that can’t change his physical appearance, can it? How did this man who I once saw as safe suddenly look so predatory?
“Theories of embodied perception suggest that nonvisual factors impact what we actually see,” says Elise Clerkin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Miami University, who’s studied clinical phenomena like fear and visual perception. In this case, the nonvisual factor is what we know about Lauer; originally that he was married with children and got along really well with Couric (at least, it appeared that way). Now, it’s that for years he had been taking advantage of women he worked with, in inappropriate and sexually aggressive ways. These two sets of factors paint two very different pictures. And while this can’t actually change the way Lauer looks, this knowledge can certainly color his appearance, applying a murky and mysterious filter.
“If one’s visual perception is influenced not only by sensory input, but also by nonvisual factors, it makes sense that your visual perception of Lauer has recently changed,” Dr. Clerkin confirms.
“This is all based on person perception and the expectations that we have about people,” adds Ronald Riggio, Ph.D., professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, who specializes in topics including nonverbal communication and has written about why power players like Harvey Weinstein commit these heinous acts. “We construct images of people and associate those images with qualities that we believe the individual possesses. So, Lauer’s appearance, when people thought he was wholesome, gracious, and kind, was interpreted to be consistent with those qualities. He appears innocent, his smile ‘boyish’ and endearing. Now, after the revelations, we see that smile as a smirk,” he explains. “The same smile is interpreted differently based on our constructed image of him.”
Dr. Riggio uses the clown analogy to explain this idea further. “Clowns used to be seen as comical, friendly, and nice, but after It and some other movies (not to mention killer John Wayne Gacy), we may start to view clowns as scary, evil, and dangerous. Same clown face, different interpretation.”
It happens all the time in relationships. “Think about a lover — his/her face is precious and attractive to you. After the breakup, you can’t stand looking at the person,” Riggio points out. “Our attitudes about the person affect our interpretations of their appearance.”
When you learn someone you trusted did something bad, fear affects how you perceive their appearance too. “There is data to suggest that fear can change the way we actually see things,” Dr. Clerkin says. “According to Dr. Dennis Proffitt at the University of Virginia, visual perception ‘promotes survival by making us aware of both the opportunities and costs associated with action,’” she notes. “Applying this theory to better understand clinical phenomena, my colleagues and I have shown that under certain conditions, people who are afraid of heights, for example, may actually see heights as higher than those with less height fear.”
“In this instance, fearing Lauer because of what he is accused of could change the way he looks to you,” Dr. Clerkin says. “Here is a man who has been accused of terrible acts; consequently, your assessment of the costs and risks of interacting with him have likely increased, and in turn, you may actually see him differently than you did just one week ago — i.e., as less ‘wholesome.’ The same is true for one’s visual perception of sexual predators more generally.”
Dr. Clerkin notes that this theory is a little controversial, as “there are visual scientists who believe that vision is a modular process that is unaffected by nonsensory input.” But, we can’t deny the fact that it feels right in this scenario.
It’s safe to say that within a few months or years, the men being brought down in this major media and Hollywood movement will change physically due to aging. They may lose hair, acquire more wrinkles, or gain weight due to stress. Or they might get work done, dye their hair, or lose weight in efforts to remake themselves. For now, they technically look the same: like traitors.
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