In Praise of Superficiality

Is seeing really believing?  Yes, it is (if you don’t look too closely).

Beauty is only skin deep. Don’t judge a book by its cover. All that glitters is not gold.

These well-heeled soundbites of conventional wisdom warn us against granting value to appearance, form, and externality. They assert that depth and substance are the determinants of genuine value and true worth. They teach us to look behind every facade and eschew form over content.

Obviously, the people who composed these popular aphorisms were themselves unattractive, moodily self-conscious, or terminally unpopular — quite possibly all three. Yet somehow, they succeeded in foisting upon Western Civilization one of the great propaganda victories of the ages, convincing the masses that physical form is quantitatively less important than such insubstantial qualities as character, aptitude, and integrity.

Astonishingly, this shameless hoax continues to shape our outlooks and attitudes even though we all know better. After all, no one would dream of visiting Washington D.C, without seeing the National Gallery, Paris without taking in the Jeu de Paume, or Croatia without experiencing the Muzej Turopolja. And what are these meccas of cultural sophistication? Art galleries — collections of paintings, sculptures, and countless testimonials to aesthetic form and external beauty. When was the last time you visited a metropolitan museum of internal organs or auto parts?

True, beauty may be only skin deep, but that’s precisely the point.

Where would Julia Roberts’s career be without her skin? She may be a fine actress, and I’m sure she’s a very nice person, but her movies wouldn’t draw much of an audience if she had her skin surgically peeled away before production.


Modern psychology has begun to recognize the fallacy of substance over form. In his bestselling book Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell marshals compelling evidence in support of superficiality. In one study, college students concluding their semester courses were asked to evaluate the quality of their teachers. Other students, who had not attended these classes, were shown three ten-second videos of the same teachers in action. Their evaluations matched closely those of the students who had actually attended.

The experimenter then shortened the video samples to five seconds, and then to two seconds, each time with comparable results. And this was with the sound turned off! Unfortunately, Mr. Gladwell does not pursue his train of thought to its logical conclusion. If two seconds is just as good as five seconds, ten seconds, or half a year, why do we need any seconds at all? A picture of the teacher should be enough to determine his competency or, even better, merely his name. It should be obvious that Mr. Sunshine, Professor Smiles, or Ms. Summer will create a more positive classroom experience than Mrs. Stern, Dr. Gaunt, or Miss Winter.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, observed William Shakespeare, but let’s remember that most historians now believe that those revered plays and sonnets were not actually written by William Shakespeare, the merchant who lived in Stratford-on-Avon. For all his great literary work, Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare, and no one knows who he was. Imagine if the real author stepped forward today and claimed credit for his writings. Nobody would believe him. Of course, hardly anybody would care. We’ve all moved on to reading more relevant novels about teenage vampires.

Consider the 2008 presidential election. Almost the entire Republican Party establishment agreed that Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the best candidate to lead the country. But he never had a chance. Can you imagine the elites of vote-laden New York, New England, and California ever voting for someone named Huckabee? If he’d been clever, the governor would have changed his name to Mike Skywalker-Sanchez, thereby establishing himself as an epic hero while attracting the critical Hispanic vote at the same time.


Consider also the great economic collapse of the same year. Everyone was perfectly happy until someone found that all those companies enjoying soaring stock prices weren’t really making any money. As soon as the media started uttering words like downturn, recession, and pyramid scheme the entire market dove into a tailspin. Wouldn’t we all be better off if those misguided people obsessed with digging beneath the surface had simply satisfied themselves with the illusion of prosperity?

Of greater consequence is the effect of our misguided quest to bring depth, complexity, and meaning into our personal lives. Human nature as it is, how much anxiety do we cause ourselves through self-help books that teach us to look for inner peace, and through therapy that prods us to resolve neuroses of which we weren’t even conscious? How many relationships would flourish if we accepted physical attraction and physical gratification as the ideal rather than pursuing fantasies like “self-actualization” and the search for “soul-mates”?

Further evidence can be found in America’s obesity epidemic. Our subconscious minds, confused by the contradictions implicit in the rejection of two-dimensionalism, leave us with no alternative than to impose our misguided objective of becoming three-dimensional upon our physical bodies. The more we seek depth, the more three-dimensional we become — which may be good for the diet-book industry but not for our wardrobes.

So why don’t we all stop pretending? If superficiality is bliss, and if depth and meaning cause only confusion and discontent, it should be a no-brainer.

Here’s the problem. Superficially, depth is “in.” We don’t want to appear shallow because shallowness appears superficially inferior. Of course, on deeper reflection, we understand that superficial appearance is infinitely preferable to the complexity of depth, but our superficiality doesn’t allow us to admit this fact because it seems too obvious to be significant. Get it?

But today we find ourselves poised on the brink of a new era. Ours is the generation of change! Let us seize the moment and rise up as one people with one objective. Let us cast off our superficial adoration for depth and substance. Let us not be afraid to declare our commitment to all that is two-dimensional and raise up the banner of simplicity and externality. Let us purge our worldview of the pernicious urge to discover meaning in our existence, and let us join hands in our conviction that everything worth having should be available to everyone without any effort, thought, or accountability.

Well, aren’t you feeling better already?


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Yonason Goldson I had to read this piece twice and give your ideas some time to be digested! I don’t even know where to start to be very #honest 😅 I can only promise to give a try and provide the clearest feedback possible!

    The first detail coming to my mind is the need to separate between the facial ‘features’ and ‘expressions’ (two components of the #physicalappearance).

    What is the difference? A huge one actually! While a first component is static and subject to different opinions depending on our personal beauty criteria (exactly like I could love ‘surrealism’ type paintings and find the ‘cubism’ kind ones ugly in art galleries, while you would feel the opposite), the expressions are a whole different story, and what is truly responsible for building a rapport or instantly making people dislike us!

    I would agree there is probably more common set of criteria in terms of judging the human beauty comparing to objects. Why? Because those biased criteria have always been promoted by the #superficial #manipulators (the Cluster B disorders) among whom the #narcissists are the ones we are the more familiar with. How have been they able of doing so? The sad truth is simply because they’ve been ruling the world for so long. This is definitely deepening the #discriminating and #stigmatising cruel reality we’re living in!

    Let’s take the sample you chose: the beautiful Julia Roberts! According to the promoted features criteria, Julia would have never been perceived as a beauty symbol since lacking a crucial part of the package: pouty lips, big b**bs and a**! What the heck happened then? What made it possible for her to be the beauty legend she is? Her gorgeous ‘real’ smile; a facial expression! How can we tell whether it is real or fake? The eyes! What contributed in positioning her among the most beautiful ladies in the world –despite lacking some criteria—is rather the energy she is vehiculating, and which is coming from the #depths: a reflection of our beautiful or ugly #soul; who we are as a person!

    There is still a problem here: many extremely smart manipulators have the capacity to even simulate ‘lovable’ facial expressions and even amazing #virtues! They use a technique called #mirroring. This means that, if we haven’t reconnected with our #puregut yet – or at least carefully observe the #consistency between the talk and the walk (when we’re still not done with setting ourselves free from our conditioning constructs), chances to be fooled by those manipulators are extremely high…

    “Consider the 2008 presidential election. Almost the entire Republican Party establishment agreed that Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the best candidate to lead the country. But he never had a chanceˮ

    Was his failure rooted to the fact he is not #clever? I would argue this option knowing how brilliant he is. What was the problem then? He is not a mediocre #manipulator and many individuals were unfortunately so conditioned from birth and have been vehiculated the horrible distorted #limiting #beliefs so well implanted in the social #subconscious #program, most probably from the very beginning of the mankind… So, again, was his failure rooted to the fact he is not #clever? Hell no! Rather to the reality so many folks are operating on #autopilot, have forgotten about their ability of #selfawareness (the skill of questioning our very thought process), and rather adore being manipulated…

    “How many relationships would flourish if we accepted physical attraction and physical gratification as the ideal rather than pursuing fantasies like “self-actualization” and the search for “soul-mates”? ˮ

    I would argue this idea! What would physical attraction create? Releasing Dopamine: one of the #instantgratification hormones. What is Dopamine side effect? Addiction! What is the outcome of addiction? #Chaos no matter whether it is a thing or a person. I tried here to explore the different well-being hormones for more details:

    “Further evidence can be found in America’s obesity epidemic. Our subconscious minds, confused by the contradictions implicit in the rejection of two-dimensionalism, leave us with no alternative than to impose our misguided objective of becoming three-dimensional upon our physical bodies. ˮ
    Do you truly believe obese people would not love being fitter either for the sake of stopping the cruel stigmatization and rejection, or even to become physically healthier? Do you truly think they’re making of “the rejection of two-dimensionalism” as excuse? I’m afraid the truth is way harsher and deeper… Most obese people suffer from PTSD among other mental health issues which were mainly created by the #cancer of the society: the character-disordered individuals (caregivers, school or workplace or even ‘friends’ #bullies).
    Last, but not least, I can’t finish this very long reflection (I should have probably written a new article) exploring the #superficiality topic without talking about why narcissists (the most superficial ones of all) are superficial. What I mean by superficiality here is the inability of managing emotional discussions requiring a developed sense of self and being connected (even partially) to our #intrinsicworth. Their real self is extremely insecure and their emotional development stopped at the childhood. They are empty. This means they’re NEVER able of active listening involving tons of #internalsecurity, empathy, vulnerability, gratitude, kindness, admitting mistakes and apologizing sincerely, genuine love, and the list goes on… They can of course simulate as explained above, but only in the very beginning of a #relationship (the love bombing).
    More to the point, the most brilliant of them who would not spend their time bragging about their belongings, vacations, accomplishments, etc… are so able of giving some very non-superficial speeches; which might contribute in blinding us to their truth – at least for people who heard of the superficiality as a red flag to spot narcissists, without giving themselves enough time to educate themselves and see the difference between #emotional #superficiality and the #cerebral one. Those narcissists are called ‘cerebral narcissists’ btw! They think they are an intellectual genius. They get their narcissistic supply from their superior intellectual abilities whether real or perceived. They will be the ones throwing around words and language that “prove” they are smarter than other people. They show their superiority by trying to be the smartest, the most intellectual person in the room. They would not bear with anyone perceiving them as anything short of brilliant. They downplay others’ intellectual abilities as beneath them.

    • I feel I have no choice, Myriam, but to confer upon you an honorary Ph.D. in recognition of your dissertation.

      To expand upon my reply to Sherry McGuinn, we don’t reject first impressions, we merely recognize their limitations. We can’t dive deep into every interaction, any more than a doctor can become expert in every sub-specialty of medicine.

      Sometimes the superficial is all we have. The problem arises when we forget that there is more beneath the surface.

      Thanks so much for the time and thought you put into your comments.

    • That’s more true than you know, Mac, especially considering that I wrote this piece over a decade ago. I won’t call the timing serendipitous, but it is noteworthy.

      I never appreciated Carl Reiner’s humor when I was young, and didn’t rediscover him until the remake of Ocean’s 11. I’m still in awe of the genius who could deliver the line “They will be here” in a way that made it the most memorable of the movie. Subtlety is all.

      Thank you for your note.

  2. What can I say, Yonason? This was incredibly deep.

    Okay. I couldn’t help myself. That said, I love this. What a fascinating and refreshing perspective. We lie to ourselves all the time, and to each other. But the truth is, “depth and substance” can be, well…boring. That’s not to say they don’t have merit, but there’s nothing wrong with assessing the external and taking it for what it is.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Hmm… not sure that was my intent, Sherry. But you do remind me of my college communications professor who taught that lasting relationships have to begin with “chip and dip” conversations. If we go too deep too fast, we end up with, ironically, such a narrow frame of mutual interest that our deep discussions leave us with a two-dimensional relationship.

  3. Yonason,
    I love this! You cut right the hypocrisy! Cheers to you! A few years ago, an NYC speaker came to the New England Chapter of the National Speakers Association. She started with an exercise based on Gladwell’s book, Blink. Later, she had people go around the room and post their thoughts about the person on their back. It was a rather daunting proposal. You did not know what people were going to write. Fortunately, for me, I was labeled ”engaging,” primarily and friendly. Unfortunately, some people did not receive such lovely descriptions. First impressions, whether we like it or not, can set a tone. Thank you for this fabulous, thought-provoking article.💖

    • I appreciate your thoughts, Darlene. You make me think of Susan Cain’s TED talk, where she explains that with the industrial revolution, people began moving into big cities and didn’t have time to get to know each other, so they became increasingly dependent on first impressions, giving a huge advantage to extroversion and charisma — which have zero correlation to aptitude and success. We rely on first impressions at our peril.