Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays


Jason Collins


September 20, 2011

It pays to be beautiful. Higher pay, increased chance of promotion, easier loans, more beautiful and intelligent partners, greater happiness - the benefits are significant. And Dan Hamermesh has done a nice job cataloguing these perks in his new book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.

In one United States study, an above-average looking man (rated 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5) commanded a 4 per cent wage premium in the labour market. For an above-average looking woman, it was 8 per cent. Below-average women  (1 or 2 on the 5 point scale) experience a 4 per cent hit, while below-average looking men suffered a large 13 per cent penalty. In dollar terms, Hamermesh put the life-time earnings premium of being above-average as opposed to below-average at $230,000.

Hamermesh describes a raft of other benefits. Beautiful people are less likely to be booted off game shows. When applying for loans, beautiful people are more likely to succeed than other, less beautiful, but equally qualified applicants - and they then have higher default rates. Beautiful people are also more likely to be in jobs where presentation might matter - barristers are more attractive than back room tax lawyers - although it is difficult to confirm which way causation flows.

Having demonstrated the financial benefits, Hamermesh spends most of the book questioning whether beauty is productive. Are beautiful people paid more because they produce more for their employers, or is it employer bias? An if a beautiful person is worth more to an employer, is this socially productive or bias by customers?

In some cases, Hamermesh suggests that beauty is clearly productive, such as for prostitution or movie-acting. There is a clear consumer surplus from a more beautiful person. I would argue that the list is longer than Hamermesh suggests - someone might get as much consumer surplus from purchasing an item from an attractive sales attendant as from seeing an attractive actor. Or take his example of Maria Sharapova playing tennis - he suggests that sponsors benefit, but the quality of the tennis is no better. Tennis is a spectator sport, and despite the quality of tennis being no higher, there may be consumer surplus for the spectators if the participants are attractive.

Hamermesh’s discussion of whether beauty is productive (and how you might measure productivity) felt like a conversation between a group of academics at the lunch table. This makes for an enjoyable read where you can throw the theories back and forth and come up with your own rationalisations. But there were times where I wished that Hamermesh could have nailed an issue in more depth. One point where more detail would have benefited the book was in his discussion of whether beauty is correlated with other socially productive traits. Hamermesh referenced a couple of studies from which it might be claimed that there is no link between beauty and IQ, but they are unrepresentative of most investigations into the link between beauty and other traits, which tend to find a correlation. For example, Satoshi Kanazawa and Jody Kovar argued it was logical to expect a linkbetween beauty and IQ and they catalogued a raft of studies that support this claim (Hamermesh notes that this is also peoples’ general perception).

By assuming that beauty is not correlated with other traits, Hamermesh restricted the range of conclusions he could draw as to why beauty might pay more. Correlation with productive traits would provide a more parsimonious explanation for many of the observations than always searching for the bias. Many of Hamermesh’s musings on productivity are going to be tested over the next few years, whether by himself or others, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it.

Consideration of the evolutionary biology behind beauty might also have assisted the analysis (although Beauty Pays is not alone in that respect - I tend to believe that in relation to half the books I read). As noted in the paper by Kanazawa and Kovar, there is a good evolutionary reason for correlation in traits. If an above-average beauty attracts an above-average intelligence mate, their children will, on average, have higher than average intelligence and beauty. Beauty and intelligence will co-vary in the population. There are likely to be a range of other traits that also co-vary with beauty.

Further, when Hamermesh suggests there is no evolutionary basis for beauty (based on one study that found no link between beauty and medically assessed health, ignoring genetic quality or the ability to attract partners), he sidesteps the wealth of papers that consider how symmetry and perceptions of attractiveness are linked to perceptions of health. This was another area where a deeper review of the literature might have been interesting.

Having assessed that the beauty-disadvantaged suffer financial penalties for reasons not to do with their productivity, Hamermesh explores protection for the ugly. He suggests that the beauty-disadvantaged may become increasingly protected by regulation (it already is in some jurisdictions). Should there prohibitions against discriminating against the ugly? What of affirmative action? Hamermesh is not committal on this point, and provides an interesting discussion, but he makes a strong point that the justification for protections of race, gender and obesity often apply with similar strength to the issue of beauty-disadvantage.

Unfortunately for the beauty-disadvantaged, I am not sure that protections can fix the hand they were dealt. Hamermesh’s focus on the financial elements underplays what many consider the important benefits of beauty. Being more attractive and attracting multiple partners or a beautiful wife has benefits beyond her 8 per cent wage premium. For below-average men, their 17 per cent financial hit relative to the attractive will further damage their chances in the competition for mates. The beauty-disadvantaged are always going to struggle in some important non-financial elements of their life. I can only suggest that they enlist Hamermesh to fight for their cause.