Why attractive people earn more
And what to do about it
‘What?’, might be your first reaction. ‘Do more attractive people earn more?’
Sure they do. Several studies show that physically more attractive people are more likely to be invited to job interviews, more likely to be promoted, and more likely to earn a higher salary than their unattractive peers.
How would we even determine something like this? Well, it’s actually pretty simple. Send six CVs to an employer advertising a job. On four of them, you add a photo. One has a photo of an attractive male, the second a photo of an attractive female, the third a photo of an unattractive male, and the fourth a photo of an unattractive female. CVs five and six, of a male and a female, have no photo. And then you measure the response rate.
Attractive men and women achieve much higher response rates than unattractive men and women. And the gap is big, notably for women. One recent study shows that attractive women received a 54% response rate compared to a 7% response rate for unattractive women. For men, the gap is smaller, but still significant: 47% compared to 26%. Those CVs without a photo had no difference between men and women, at 36%.
The question is why. There are several theories. The first is simple discrimination: People have a preference for beauty and therefore prefer attractive people. A second explanation has an evolutionary origin. Attractive people are perhaps more likely to have other characteristics that are useful for survival: perhaps they are more social or more self-confident. Attractive people are thus more productive because of these other characteristics, which explains why they earn higher salaries. A third reason is that attractive young adults may be preferred in the marriage market, making them more valuable to parents. (Parents of a child that ‘marries well’ might benefit directly through earning a bride price or indirectly through higher social rank, for example.) Parents thus have an incentive to protect this value from a young age, and are therefore more likely to invest in their attractive children, be that in nutrition, healthcare or education. These investments then translate into higher salaries later in life.
Because social scientists cannot test their theories in a laboratory, it is, of course, difficult to know which of these theories best explains the attractiveness premium. But a new study in Economics Letters by economic PhD-student Adrian Mehic wagers an answer: die reason for the attractiveness premium is different for men and women. For men, it is because of their productivity advantage. For women, it is mostly discrimination.
To prove this, Mehic studies the exam results of several engineering classes at Lund University in Sweden. In total, 307 students signed up between 2015 and 2019. What is important, is that all classes in 2020 moved online due to Covid-19. It is this (exogenous) shock that Mehic uses to understand the reasons for the attractiveness premium.
But first, how does Mehic measure attractiveness? He signed up 74 volunteers to assign an attractiveness score between 0 (unattractive) and 10 (attractive) based on a photo of each of the students. Because there were so many students, each volunteer rated only half of the students, which still means that each student was rated 37 times. Mehic first shows that the correlations between the volunteers’ scores were very high: everyone agreed on who the attractive students were. Then he compares the attractiveness score to their exam results.
It is perhaps useful to know that in all the results Mehic also controls for other factors that might explain a student’s exam performance, including things like age, gender, the gender of the lecturer, and parental income (being Swedish data, this type of information is available).
So what does he find? Attractive students – both male and female – attain higher exam grades. Interestingly enough, this is only true in subjects where the lecturer, as he put it, is more likely to interact with students, ie where assignments might include things like orals or teamwork. In very technical subjects like mathematics, there is no difference between the grades of attractive and unattractive students.
And then Covid-19 hits and all lectures move online. Lecturers have less interaction with students, with fewer opportunities for subjective assessments. Is there still a difference between the grades of attractive and unattractive students?
For men, yes. Attractive males perform better than unattractive ones. But the surprising result is that the attractiveness premium for women has disappeared. With online classes, attractive and unattractive female students perform the same.
What can explain this? Mehic suggests that this is because men and women have different reasons for the attractiveness premium. Men’s advantage is probably due to the correlation between attractiveness and other characteristics that make them more productive. Attractive men probably have more self-confidence and are bigger risk-takers. There is ample evidence that risk-averse students perform poorly on multiple-choice questions, for example. Whether male students attend class in person or not, the attractive ones would still outperform the unattractive ones.
This is not true for women, argues Mehic. Their attractiveness premium is due to discrimination or, in other words, the preferences of the lecturer. Note that these preferences exist for both male and female lecturers; the gender of the lecturer has no effect on the result. When female students attended in-person classes and were graded on things like oral presentations, more attractive women performed better. But when Covid-19 arrived and all classes moved online, this advantage disappeared. There were fewer opportunities to discriminate against unattractive women.
What do we do with these results? There are easy things one can do to reduce the attractiveness premium. Employers could insist on CVs with no photos. The shift to working online may also reduce the attractiveness premium.
But don’t expect the attractiveness premium to simply disappear. The attentive reader would have noted why there is an incentive for attractive people to attach a photo to their CV: the response rate is higher (54% for women) compared to those CVs without a photo (36%).
It is in the classroom, though, that there are more opportunities for improvement. Lecturers can, where possible, avoid oral presentations and other assessments that rely on subjective scoring. Sadly, exactly the opposite seems to be happening: there is a push globally for fewer standardised testing. Consider the California State University system that earlier this year opted to end the use of standardised tests in the undergraduate admissions process. Although the reasons for such a shift are noble – to level the playing field for students from poor communities – Mehic’s research suggests that attempts to reduce one form of discrimination may introduce another.
Mehic’s findings have another implication, of course. The most attractive students would soon learn that they can perform better in courses that rely on subjective assessments. The outcome? The attractive ones will end up in English literature while the unattractive ones will end up in, well, economics…
An edited version of this post appeared (in Afrikaans) in Rapport on 9 October 2022. Photo by Joe Shields on Unsplash.