The Ravages of Time

My twenty-five year college reunion is right around the corner.  In advance of the event, my classmates were asked to write a short summary of their post college life.  Next to each write-up was the picture from our graduating yearbook twenty-five years ago.  Many of the entries also include current pictures.

Flipping casually through the book, I noticed two things. First, it is amazing how old we all look.  Time really takes its toll, that’s for sure. Second, men were much more likely than women to submit pictures of what they look like now.

There was a third thing that also seemed to be true.  Many of the people who were really attractive twenty-five years ago don’t look so good now.  And even more interesting, there were a surprising number of people who were unattractive in college, but look great (relative to the rest of us geriatrics) now.  If I had been asked to guess, I would have estimated that the correlation between attractiveness twenty-five years ago and today was zero or even negative for women.  For men I would have guessed a small positive correlation.

I was so struck by the pattern that I decided to do a more systematic data analysis.

Old-Fashioned Matchmaking as an Antidote to Modern Dating Dilemmas

We recently put out four Freakonomics Radio episodes that developed an arc of a theme: "Reasons to Not Be Ugly," "What You Don't Know About Online Dating," "Why Marry? (Part 1)" and "Why Marry? (Part 2)." These episodes prompted a lot of interesting listener/reader replies. Here is a particularly interesting one, from a woman we'll call R.:

I recently listened to your podcast on online dating and found it fascinating -- not so much because of the economics of dating, but more how it contrasted and compared with the economics of the dating world I live in: the Orthodox Jewish semi-arranged marriages.

I grew up in upstate New York, in a village that is almost only Haredi Orthodox. The world I live in is sort of like Jane Austen, very marriage-oriented. Every girl (and boy for that matter) wants to get married, and does so in her early twenties. The systems at play to get everyone married off must fascinate an outsider. Out of my class of about sixty, about 95% got married within the first five years out of school. So far, only one girl is divorced. It's hard to quantify happiness in all these marriages but from what my friends tend to tell me, most seem very happy in their relationships. I know that the Orthodox Union has done research into the area. They collected a lot of data by surveying thousands of Orthodox couples, including Haredim, with in-depth online questionnaires. While I have not examined their data (and what a treasure trove that must be to an economist!) I think that this success in matching quickly, efficiently, and happily is due to changing the incentives you talk about in your podcast. The entire process seems to have been designed to reduce outer beauty from being the main incentive in a marriage market.

On Beauty and Biking

Our recent podcast "Reasons to Not Be Ugly" examined the beauty premium, as well as the "downside of ugly."  A new paper by evolutionary biologist Erik Postma in Biology Letters highlights one more advantage of beauty: better endurance performance (in the form of faster cycling).  Bill Andrews of Discover's D-brief blog summarizes the study's setup:

As the paper’s abstract explains, “Females often prefer to mate with high quality males, and one aspect of quality is physical performance.” So the more physically fit a human male is, the more human females might want to bang him. But how to test for this — and, specifically, how to test for this with the measure of physical performance being endurance, a trait not easily quantified?

FREAK-est Links

1. Department of Obvious? Restaurants seat good-looking patrons at the best tables. (HT: Cyril Morong)

2. Tel Aviv University discovers a bacteria-killing protein that could replace antibiotics.

3. The Gates Foundation condom-design contest winners: beef tendon and a "wrapping" condom.

4. Mass killers want the spotlight: how to stop them.

Charity and the Beauty Effect

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new  book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List appeared in our recent podcast "How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten"; the post below offers a fuller description of an experiment discussed in that podcast.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in December, 2005, Jeanne, a bright, energetic junior at East Carolina University (ECU), trotted up the walk of a suburban home in Pitt County, N.C. Jeanne wore a shirt emblazoned with the name “ECU Natural Hazards Mitigation Research Center.” She also wore a badge with her photograph, name, and solicitation permit number on it. She knocked, and a middle-aged man opened the door. 

“Yes?” he said, eyeing her. 

“Hi,” she said, smiling brightly. “My name is Jeanne. I’m an ECU student visiting Pitt County households today on behalf of the newly formed ECU Natural Hazards Mitigation Research Center. Would you like to make a contribution today?” It’s probably safe to say that the last thing the middle-aged man had on his mind was the possibility of Jeanne being a double agent. Yes, she was really trying to raise money for the center. But she was also part of a bigger experiment involving dozens of college students knocking on the doors of 5,000 households in Pitt County. 

The Face of a CEO

We've blogged before about the influence that beauty can have on earnings and career choices. But what about the shape of a face? A new paper in the British Journal of Psychology looks at the faces of U.K. executives. Researchers Shuaa Alrajih and Jamie Ward found that CEOs have greater than average facial width-to-height ratios. The abstract:

The relative proportion of the internal features of a face (the facial width-to-height ratio, FWH) has been shown to be related to individual differences in behavior in males, specifically competitiveness and aggressiveness. In this study, we show that the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of the leading UK businesses have greater FWHs than age- and sex-matched controls. We demonstrate that perceivers, naive as to the nature of the stimuli, rate the faces of CEOs as higher in dominance or success, and that ratings of dominance or success are themselves correlated with the FWH ratio. We find no association with other inferred traits such as trustworthiness, attraction or aggression. The latter is surprising given previous research demonstrating a link between FWH and ratings of aggression. We speculate that the core association may be between FWH and drive for dominance or power, but this can be interpreted as aggression only in particular circumstances (e.g., when the stimuli are comprised of faces of young, as opposed to middle-aged, men).

The Sharapova Effect

recent paper (full PDF here) by Young Hoon Lee and Seung Chan Ahn makes a clever point about occupations in which people are paid for a main activity and a secondary area where success depends on productivity in the main activity.  If success in the latter also depends on some other characteristic, people who are well-endowed with that characteristic will invest more in the skills needed to be productive in the main activity: the incentives created by that synergy will spill over to earnings in the main activity. 

Their example is the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).  Better-looking golfers get lower scores (perform better) — but only going from average-lookers to the best-looking. Below the average, there’s no effect of differences in looks on tournament scores.  That makes sense — you probably won’t get more endorsement opportunities if you’re average-looking instead of bad-looking.  Although not golf, one might call this the Sharapova Effect. Are there other labor markets, or other activities, in which a similarly unusual synergy exists??

Hamermesh on The Daily Show: Ugly People

Our friend and contributor Dan Hamermesh was featured on The Daily Show last night, in a piece about ugly people. Hamermesh has done extensive research on the economic disadvantages of being unattractive. His most recent book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, shows how all kinds of economic benefits flow toward physical beauty, from higher salaries, to better loan rates, to attractive, educated spouses.

In the bit, Hamermesh and Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones have some fun discussing whether "uglo-Americans" should be given special legal protection.

What's the Median Income for a Fashion Model in the U.S.?

Take a wild guess: How much do you think fashion models make? It's one of those professions that unless you know someone, or work in the biz, there's not a lot of information out there to have a good view into. Judging by models' perceived glamour and high society status, not to mention the cut-throat competition they deal with, you might think it's a lot. I think I did. Which is why this line from a TNR review of the new book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model struck me as amazing:

The median income across America in 2009 for a model was $27,330—income that includes no benefits.

The book is by Ashley Mears, a former fashion model and current Boston University sociologist.

Dan Hamermesh Answers Your Questions About Beauty Pays

This week we solicited your questions for Dan Hamermesh, a regular Freakonomics contributor, and author of the new book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful.

A lot of you chimed in with thoughtful questions about the relationship between success and beauty. Hamermesh has obliged by answering a great many of them, which you'll find below. As always, thanks to everyone for participating.