Economic research has long suggested that there is a “beauty premium” — or, conversely, an “ugliness penalty” — on wages. But do beautiful people really earn more money than their less attractive counterparts? According to the researchers, many attractive people do tend to make more money but not for the reasons we think they do. In other words, it’s not quite so simple.
Researchers Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK and Mary Still of the University of Massachusetts in Boston say that people’s salaries are influenced by more than just physical attractiveness (or lack thereof), and that individual differences count too.
“Physically more attractive workers may earn more, not necessarily because they are more beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent, and have better personality traits conducive to higher earnings, such as being more Conscientious, more Extraverted, and less Neurotic,” says Kanazawa.
For the study, the researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample from a US data set that had very precise and repeated measures of physical attractiveness — the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health). It measured physical attractiveness of all respondents on a five-point scale at four different points in life over 13 years.
Their analysis revealed that people are not necessarily discriminated against because of their looks. In fact, the beauty premium theory was dispelled when the researchers took into account factors such as health, intelligence, and major personality factors together with other correlates of physical attractiveness.
Healthier and more intelligent respondents, and those with more conscientious, more extraverted, and less neurotic personality traits earned significantly more than others.
Some evidence was even found for a so-called ugliness premium in which it pays to be considered unattractive. In fact, participants who fell in the “very unattractive” category always earned more than those rated as merely unattractive. This was sometimes even the case when the income of the very unattractive was measured against their average-looking or even attractive co-workers.
According to Still, the methods used in other studies may help explain why their current findings appear contrary to the current beauty-premium theory. On the one hand, few other studies have taken into account aspects of health, intelligence (as opposed to education), and personality factors. On the other, in most studies the so-called “very unattractive” and “unattractive” categories are grouped together to form a “below-average” category.
“Thereby they fail to document the ugliness premium enjoyed by the very unattractive workers,” says Still.
The study is published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.