Reasons to Not Be Ugly: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Tracheotomy Bob)

(Photo: Tracheotomy Bob)

Our latest podcast is called “Reasons to Not Be Ugly.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

This episode takes a look at the “beauty premium” and, conversely, the downside of ugly. Do cuter babies get more attention? Are good-looking students graded more charitably? How do ugly people fare in the marriage and labor markets?

Our guide is Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas and a frequent contributor to this blog. Hamermesh talks to Stephen Dubner about his voluminous research on the topic, including his book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. Hamermesh has also talked about beauty — and his own looks — on The Daily Show. You can probably guess how that worked out.

As Hamermesh tells us, bad looks can cost a person a couple hundred thousand dollars in lost wages over a lifetime. But, he says, there is one profession in which ugly people seem to do better:

HAMERMESH: Robbers … and it makes sense, because you can do better as an armed robber if you don’t have to shoot people you can just scare them by being ugly as hell.

You’ll hear from Erdal Tekin, an economist at Georgia State University and co-author, with Naci Mocan, of a paper called “Ugly Criminals” (abstract; PDF), which links a person’s looks to his propensity for crime. And economist Dave Berri, also a contributor to this blog, talks about how an NFL quarterback’s looks affect his payday.

Finally, you’ll hear cameos from radio hosts Robert Siegel (All Things Considered), Brooke Gladstone (On The Media), Jad Abumrad (Radiolab), and Kai Ryssdal (Marketplace), all of whom have more than just “faces for radio,” in our humble opinion.


"Freakonomics - The hidden side of everything."

What's the hidden side to this particular topic? Seems like an exercise in stating the painfully obvious.

Freakonomics is at its best when revealing something surprising and counter-intuitive but retrospectively impossible to deny. I think a lot of stuff in the books qualifies as this kind of material.

Maybe with the blog and podcast are where they put their throwaway material, since they're giving it away for free. Hey Freakonomics writers, you guys should do a post about that.

Shane L

I, on the other hand, find it most unlikely and interesting. (Or would, if I hadn't come across it from Freakonomics or other popular social sciences books and blogs before.)

Consider the great movements demanding the equal treatment of women, of ethnic and religious groups, of gays and transgendered people: yet discrimination against ugly people exists right under our noses and nobody seems much troubled by it. Will there be an Ugly Rights campaign one day?

Back to the article: could boxers or martial artists also benefit from ugliness for the same reason that robbers do? How about soldiers or riot police?


I dunno. How many people would be willing to sign up for something requiring them to publicly admit to being unattractive?

memory lost?

U ForgotTo ContrOl For Sex M/f.


Any program that considers Peyton Manning better looking than Jay Cutler should probably be recoded. Not that some might find Peyton better looking, but still.

Here's Jay Cutler:

And Peyton Manning:

mind over matter

Would that picture of Einstein sticking out his' tongue sold so much if it were not `EINSTEIN'. I mean really, he was not a handsome man but was perceived as one with all the hullabaloo associated with him.


How true is it that the individuals with highest scores on this symmetry scale are actually considered more attractive by other individuals?

I have a hard time relying on just a symmetry score as a proxy for beauty. I'm sure there is some correlation there, but there's a lot more to having a "beautiful" face than just it's symmetry. Weight, complexion, eye color, hair, etc.. as far as I can tell those don't affect the symmetry, but can affect what one perceives as beautiful.


Proportionality is probably the best single trait to measure. It encompasses symmetry, too, which is elegant. Proportionality maps closely to hormone levels. Attraction is caused by the perception of close proximity to an ideal balance of the opposite sex's hormone levels.

So all else being equal, a woman with a strong dominant jawline, even if it's symmetrical, will be less attractive to most men than a woman with a fine, delicate jawline, since the latter is indicative of a prototypical female hormone balance.

Traits that can be graded along a spectrum, like proportionality, seem more valid as measures of beauty than traits that are "multiple choice" like eye color: picture the face of an attractive woman, airbrushed to show green eyes in one photo and blue eyes in another. You might have a preference for green eyes, but are you really going to say the blue eyed version is ugly?

Then there are things like hair style which come with the label "subject to change" anyway. "She's hot but what's up with her hairstyle? Well, she can change it so who cares."

Men tend to prefer long, full, natural-looking hairstyles on women (these are signs of fertility), but there are a lot of hairstyles which fit that criteria. Again, one may have a preference for a certain type of hairstyle, but if all versions of the attractive woman's picture come with long, full, natural-looking hair, I find it implausible that a guy would say the off-preference ones are ugly.

Pigmentation is another "multiple-choice" trait that isn't very useful as a measure. Skin color changes with the seasons, within a range based on a person's family background and lifestyle, so it's kinda halfway between hairstyle and eye color in that respect. While most people have their preferences, even guys who aren't generally attracted to black girls, for example, will usually acknowledge that Beyonce is hot. Proportionality uber alles.



Something that puzzles me here. Why does it appear that you are measuring beauty only by the face? It may be crude, but there's a good bit of truth in what I've heard from many a guy discussing the attractiveness of women: "Who looks at their *@#! face?" Or the converse "But she has such a pretty face" said in a pitying tone of the fat girl.

Certainly this fits with my own perceptions. Place an attractive face atop an overweight or anorexic-thing & flabby body, and it's merely a curiousity. An average or less face on a seriously fit & trim body, though, makes an attractive package.

The good part of this, though, is that there is a large element of choice. I may not be able to do anything about my face (other than growing a beard), but I can decide whether to have six-pack abs or a beer gut.


Can you post a link to the website where you can post photos and get them evaluated according to the symmetry?

Bourree Lam


Where can I upload my picture to see where I score on the beauty / ugly scale?

Bourree Lam


Nancy Etcoff's book "Survival of the Prettiest" gave excellent explanations, including from evolutionary sources. Maybe this explains why getting plastic surgery is shown to be the only "purchase" where there is no decrease in happiness afterwards (as opposed to buying a car, where the purchaser adjusts).

Mary Horvath

Interesting that I have listened to all the radio personalities they had at the end for many years and never was curious about what they looked like. I of course googled them all while listening to the podcast said about one after the other, she's cute, he's cute.

the white

Hey Alex, you asked “how many people would sign up for something publicly admitting that they are ugly?” well... Count the users on Facebook, share the numbers when you are done.


it's the hidden side of research on physical attractiveness. . .


Freakonomics validates my 2009 Washington Post article "A Socialist Program to Share Beauty Fairly" ... "Workers of the world, Exfoliate!



Your analysis on the football quarterback pay mentions an average difference in pay based on the "looks" data, but fails to indicate what the relative noise in the data. A $300k deviation may sound like something, but Quarterback pay varies drastically. The noise in your data may well be above a $1M or even as high as $5M. Furthermore, given the number of quarterbacks out there, the study may not even have sufficient power. In which case, the comment about looks impacting QB pay is technically accurate based on means or medians, but is meaningless for any practical purpose.

You've educated me about economics to make me skeptical, but sometimes it feels like your pulling the wool in order to get a story.


Why does this not appear to apply to comedians?


Another ugly scientist/economist claims that good looking people have it easy :)

Really Hamermesh, there's no way to test Dubner's theory that the non good looking, cut their losses, and spend more time focusing on writing and programming, etc...? Really? Ask them. You're an economist.

Also, symmetry does not equal good looking. Though, body symmetry may benefit all of their quarterbacking abilities, of the quarterbacks listed, only Tom Brady and Russell Wilson could be classified as good looking. The others would be normal looking to ugly.


I just finished listening to this podcast and found it extremely interesting. As a young female, I spend a good amount of time thinking about how my attractiveness affects my prospects for a successful career, relationship, and self-esteem.

As a young black female, I also spend a lot of time thinking about how my race affects the perception of whatever beauty I might have. About three years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, Psychology Today published an article about why black females are scientifically the least attractive group of people in the world. After a strong outcry from the online community, PT removed the piece and produced a follow up discounting the original poster's faulty evidence and offensive premise.

I mention this because I think perceptions of race are strongly implicated in perceptions of beauty. A clearer example of this is the issue of hair in the black female community. Americans are taught that straight hair is more attractive, and many black women use dangerous chemicals or straight hair extensions to fit this standard. Wearing our natural hair has been a big social taboo until quite recently. The natural texture of our hair, something inherent to the African race, has been judged as inherently ugly, and black women have suffered from that (and paid for it, because straight hair is expensive!). But in the past couple of years, our natural hair has become social acceptable in schools and the workplace. For the first time in my 22 years, people compliment the fuffly locks that sit on my head. Consequently, when Professor Hamermesh discussed beauty in terms of discrimination, I was surprised that this podcast did not consider how perceptions of beauty and race are curiously intertwined.

I guess you could say that any unfair perceptions of attractiveness that minority races in the US might suffer from (for instance, the American standard of beauty values most highly Caucasian features for both women and men) would simply be another effect of racism, rather than a separate cause of discrimination for these groups. But in any case, I believe the effects of race deserved discussion in this very interesting podcast, as it affects perceptions of beauty quite often.



I've seen other stuff about the science you mentioned. Basically it comes down to average hormone levels. Women with high levels of testosterone tend to look less feminine and are therefore rated less attractive. Black women tend to average higher testosterone levels than women of other races.

(Did PT explain why its premise was faulty, or did they just make something up for the purposes of PR damage control? It's funny how fickle scientists can be when the results of their research are unpopular.)

Obviously, personal taste mitigates this science somewhat, plus the fact that not every individual conforms to the average. For example, my wife is black and going on objective measures alone (height-to-weight ratio, hip-to-waist ratio, facial feature proportionality, etc.) she's more attractive than many of the women--of any race--I encounter throughout a given week.

I don't think we're "taught" to like straight hair, it's that straight hair more clearly shows its length and the thickness of each individual strand, and these are also closely tied to hormone levels. (Thus why women's hair changes when they have kids.) Men are attracted to women who look fertile, and long thick hair signals fertility. A black woman's hair may be long, but because of its curly "peppercorn" texture it bunches up real tight and it's hard to tell.

Racism (the belief that one race--usually one's own race--is innately superior to and more deserving than another) might impact one's tastes in beauty, as might racial separatism (the belief that people of different races should not mix, even if one does not believe that one race is superior to another), but generally I think it's the way we pick up on hormone levels that determines what we naturally find attractive. I know plenty of white guys, for example, who aren't attracted to black girls in general, but they're not racists.



Really? You're projecting your culture's markers for "femininity" and "fertility" across cultures and races? The premise of your comment seems to be that there is one universal standard for each of these. This is ignorant. This is also Eurocentric/ white-supremacist, which is problematic at least because – as is often the case with these pathologies – you seem completely oblivious to the implications of your comment...Your black wife is an outlier because she's attractive? That she's with you says other things about her...Wishing you illumination...

Voice of Reason

I wonder if part of the reason is that we subconsciously assume that people have a significant control over their looks, and consequently assume that if somebody is unattractive that they are lazy, and/or have no respect for themselves and others? While this line of thinking is certainly flawed, there probably is a large portion of somebody's attractiveness that they control (clothing, accessories, make-up for women, physical fitness, and posture).


Is the podcast about ugly people going to be on NYC? if so when? my computer has no sound.

Grant Sutton

I am curious if the experience in being more social might have a higher monetary yield than studying in modern society. Certainly it is a learned skill that can be measured, and if people are less comfortable practicing the skill with a person it is less likely to develop as fully. Was this aspect controlled in any way? Is this effect larger or smaller than the effect of beauty? I think there are some chimpanzee research paper's in this direction. I will have to try and find them.