Tattoos Do Not Elicit Disgust & Don’t Keep You From Getting Hired (Maybe)

One of the reviewers for my recent article on tattoos among undergraduate athletes turned me on to another tattoo researcher who I’d previously overlooked. Andrew Timming is an associate professor of human resource management at the University of Western Australia whose focus is the social psychology of work. Of interest to us in particular is his research on perceptions of tattooing in the workplace. How do employers/potential employers view them? How do customers view tattooed folks in businesses they patronize?

I like his work because the perception of tattooing research has largely been so coarse-grained. We’ve been focusing on how people perceive others with tattoos—usually as open-minded people who take a lot of risks—but we all know that a lot goes into that perception and which we struggle to measure in our studies: style of tattoos, quantity, location, quality, how it fits the person, context, other stuff about the person, etc. and so on. Timming’s work is digging into specific situations with ingenious nuance. Since he’s interested in human resource psychology, his focus gets at a locus where a lot of these opinions and the possibility that we act on them matter. And one of his major findings is something I’ve been interested in my work. In “Body art as branded labour,” he

inverts the wider literature on the effects of body art by focusing on reverse prejudice and the economic benefits of visible tattoos.

His intuitively logical finding is that some employers market in hipsterism and edginess and value visible tattoos. Their employees looking cool makes them look cool. I say this seems intuitive, but maybe that’s because I worked in the music industry for several years. Working in records stores and music distribution, it was people who dressed in suits or conservatively who had a more difficult time.

Of course, it’s not all about having tattoos or not having tattoos. What makes tattoos so important is that they are unique as a permanent commitment to style or attitude. Jack Black’s attitude comes across quite clear in the movie Hi-Fidelity, but maybe it takes asking for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” to learn that (probably not, but you get my point).

(Incidentally, I have acted just like this in my former life as a record store clerk. It was because I didn’t like the store owner and didn’t want people shopping there, but the owner saw me and didn’t care. It’s really a thing.)

I wanted to introduce Timming’s work because a new article is out that is getting a fair amount of press. Though it’s sort of meta. When I search “tattoo study” on Twitter (yes, to RT my own press 😬), I get:

Which leads back to a study that was just published in August in Human Relations called “Are tattoos associated with employment and wage discrimination? Analyzing the relationships between body art and labor market outcomes” by Michael French (lead author) and Karoline Mortensen at University of Miami. They collected survey data from 1323 females (women? men? trans?) and 685 (males) via MTurk and found that

tattoos are no significantly associated with employment or earnings discrimination. This finding endures when considering measures of whether one has a tattoo, number of tattoos, whether the tattoos are visible, and whether they are offensive. [p. 17]

This does not suggest that tattoos are accepted in all walks of life now, but it does suggest what it means to say that tattoos have gone mainstream. The number of occupations where tattooing is now OK has crossed the cultural Rubicon (it’s now cool to be a tattooed college professor—elbow patches are only cool if you’re ironic or not ironic that you’re ‘cute’).

OK, now this part gets a bit confusing. Another new article out in 2018, this time in Journal of Social Psychology, is “What do you think about ink? An examination of implicit and explicit attitudes toward tattooed individuals” by Colin Zestcott and colleagues. (This is not to be confused with “What do you think of my ink? Assessing the effects of body art on employment chances” by Timming and colleagues the year before.) Zestcott is as assistant professor of social psychology at SUNY Geneseo (note, while neither Andrew Timming, Michael French, nor Karoline Mortenson appear to be tattooed hipster doofuses like me, Zestcott is fully ironic with shirt, tie, and tattoo-sleeved forearm! 👊).

This is a survey study using MTurk as well (40 females, 36 males—again, I self-righteously ask—it’s 2018, can we use self-identified gender and not sex, if it’s nuance we’re looking for, as well as more accurate representation). Zestcott previously conducted a similar study of tattooed individuals with neck tattoos and found evidence for an implicit bias against people with neck tattoos even if they said they were acceptable, suggesting there are still latent negative feelings in the general public against tattoos. While tattoos may be mainstream in general, some tattoos are still not so common or accepted, including neck tattoos.

But in this new study, they had folks rate 27 different tattooed people across a variety of dimensions, some of whom had neck tattoos, and took 6 that received the most average ratings to be compared compared to a variant of the Implicit Association Test. While participants expressed negative explicit and implicit biases toward tattooed individuals, those biases were not associated with strong negative emotions or disgust. This is an important point because

disgust may arise from groups that violate moral standards or cultural norms. Consequently, because tattoos are increasing in popularity, individuals with tattoos may not violate cultural standards and norms. Thus, it is possible that implicit prejudice was unrelated to disgust sensitivity because tattooed individuals are not associated with disgust.

Cool, so I don’t disgust you… 🙄

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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