Thursday, March 08, 2007

What's Comb Over You?

Here is the paradox of the comb-over: Men with comb-overs are presumably more image-conscious than most men, because the whole purpose of the comb-over is to hide baldness. Yet those who wear comb-overs almost always look worse than those who bare their bald skulls with pride.

Given the near-universal scorn for comb-overs, how do some men end up with them, and why do they keep them? It seems obvious there must be some degree of self-deception going on. They must believe that others don’t notice, or that the comb-over still looks better than the bald spot. But how did they get there? What psychological mechanism facilitates this level of delusion?

Naturally, I have a theory. I surmise that comb-overs don’t happen all at once, but by degrees. More importantly, in the early stages the comb-over actually works. Imagine a man whose hair is just starting to get a little thin on top. By moving his part just a tiny fraction of an inch toward his temple, he will increase the apparent thickness on the top of his head, while leaving his part in the acceptable range. He will actually look better! But as the thinning advances, the head-owner gradually moves his part farther and farther down the side of his head, until eventually he winds up with a full-blown comb-over.

This process would fail, however, if there were a clear line between moving-the-part and combing-over. Imagine if our heads were shaped like blocks, with actual corners left and right. As soon as you started to comb your hair from the flat side over the corner onto the flat top, the comb-over would be instantly obvious. But our actual heads, being more oval in shape, don’t permit such a bright-line distinction.

I conclude that comb-over-ers have fallen victim to a version of the sorites paradox, also known as the paradox of the heap. This paradox shows that when a concept has vague or fuzzy boundaries, it’s possible to move, by a series of individually logical or sensible steps, to an outcome that is thoroughly untenable. For instance, if you start with a heap of sand, you can always remove one grain of sand and still have a heap. But apply that premise repeatedly, and you’ll eventually conclude that a single grain of sand constitutes a heap. That is the position of the late-stage comb-over victim, who has concluded those last few pathetic combed-over strands constitute a full head of hair.


Anonymous said...

Also, consider the frog placed into boiling water and the frog placed into water which is then gradually brought to a boil.

Anonymous said...

The boiling frog is an urban legend.

Anonymous said...

I think your theory is correct, but only to a point. It pretty much explains the way I ended up with a combover for a while--as my hair thinned, I kept moving the part, and it wasn't until my barber actually said "combover" that I realized what I had done.

But all it took was hearing the word "combover" that led me to instruct my barber to cut the extra drapery, and I've been explicitly bald ever since. And this was after only about six months of combing over.

I've got to think that virtually everyone who has had a combover for any reasonable period of time (say, a year or more) has also had the realization that he is obviously a bald man with a combover. There's simply no way to avoid it. Those who continue to comb over after this realization are not deceiving themselves into believing that they have hair, or into believing that anyone else believes that they do have hair. They have simply decided that their combovers look better than their bald heads.

It sounds silly, since combovers generally look bad. But bald heads often look bad, too, especially if your complexion is light. In addition, a combover looks different from a bald head. It should not be surprising that many people would rather look bad from having a combover than look bad from having a bald head. You do look a bit more like your pre-baldness self; you don't look the same, but it is closer.

It's the Ockham's Razor answer: Why do people look like that? Because they want to.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the point where you can no longer have a symmetrical haircut (because the combed-over hair must be longer than the hair in the corresponding location on the opposite side) would be the tipping point. But I admit I don't know much about men's haircuts.

Anonymous said...

Consider a great spiritual leader. Would he have written this blog post?

Anonymous said...

I used to have a comb over and the theory is mostly right. One thing left out is that a comb over is a natural progression from having parted hair. Everyone who has parted hair combs hair from one side to the other. If the hair in the middle falls out then you get a combover without ever deciding to. Inertia is one of the powerful forces in the universe.

Glen Whitman said...

Sourcreamus -- Hey, that makes a lot of sense. I figured inertia had to be involved once the comb-over entered the too-obvious-to-deny zone, but I hadn't seen its relevance in the process of getting there.

Anon of March 11 -- Fortunately, I have no aspirations toward being a great spiritual leader.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me you would have to factor in the barber in this process. The sorites paradox would have to affect the barber too. He would presumably have to cut the hair differently as the bald spot grew, unless he was intentionally cutting the hair with a combover because that is how he thinks his customer would be happy with it.

Anonymous said...

Here's a great perspective on the great and mysterious issue of male hair loss - info that guys themselves type into search engines! WEIRD and funny stuff in all these pages. :)

law student said...

what a neat post. I myself am thinning and have noticed a serious acceleration since beginning 1L year. I started out with a messy look, then began parting it and that part has been moving perilously closer to the edge month to month.
Oh dear, the angst men go through over something as silly as hair.