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Beauty and economics

Posted by Robin Abrahams  September 1, 2011 08:24 AM

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Economics professor Daniel Hamermesh had an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times about the benefits of being good-looking:     

[B]eing attractive also helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too!) and get better deals on mortgages. Each of these facts has been demonstrated over the past 20 years by many economists and other researchers. The effects are not small: one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third -- a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000. 

Beauty is as much an issue for men as for women. While extensive research shows that women's looks have bigger impacts in the market for mates, another large group of studies demonstrates that men's looks have bigger impacts on the job. Why this disparate treatment of looks in so many areas of life? It's a matter of simple prejudice. Most of us, regardless of our professed attitudes, prefer as customers to buy from better-looking salespeople, as jurors to listen to better-looking attorneys, as voters to be led by better-looking politicians, as students to learn from better-looking professors.

Rather hilariously, Dr. Hamermesh suggests offering legal protection to "the truly ugly, perhaps the 1 or 2 percent worst-looking of the population."  Is there anything an economist won't say or do in order to get in the NYT? (A former student of mine posted the article on Facebook with the comment, "Your momma's so ugly she needs protection from the ACLU." I like to think I had some small part in that young man's development.)

For those of us in the top 98%, I have for a long time wondered about the upper limit of that beauty benefit -- or, more specifically, the extent to which the key factor in how appearance affects career is based less on how good-looking you are in an absolute sense, and more about how much your appearance matches the cultural stereotype of your job. Do you look like what people expect a mechanic, nurse, news producer, kindergarten teacher to look like? 

When people are asked to judge the intelligence, competence, honesty, and so forth of individuals based only on pictures, they reliably rank better-looking people more highly. It would be interesting to see if having an appearance congruent with one's job would affect people's judgments more or less than attractiveness does. Would a tall, tanned & toned blond be assumed to be more or less competent a professor than a short, messy-haired myope?

At any rate, there isn't much we can do to significantly alter how good-looking we are. But if your job is important to you, there are some benefits to looking the part. And those style choices are much more under your control. 
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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