The Economics of Teeth, and Other Beauty Premiums

I’ve been thinking a lot about teeth lately.

First I read this post by Ian Ayres on the value of getting a tooth cleaning.

Then I was out in Salt Lake City to give a lecture at the University of Utah, and the student who drove me around was a very nice guy whose father is a dentist, and we fell to discussing whether dentists’ offspring have better teeth than average (yes, he said), and whether that difference is genetic or behavioral (behavioral, he said).

Then I came across an interesting working paper by Sherry Glied and Matthew Neidell called “The Economic Value of Teeth” (abstract here or download here).

The paper asks whether good teeth improve a person’s labor-market outcome, which is a basic but important question, especially since teeth (unlike height or looks in general) are something that can be fixed.

Glied and Neidell used a clever methodology to measure the impact of teeth on earnings: whether and/or when a certain city’s population had access to fluoridated water. As they explain in the abstract: “The politics surrounding the adoption of water fluoridation by local water districts suggest exposure to fluoride during childhood is exogenous to other factors affecting earnings.”

They found that women who grew up drinking fluoridated water earn about 4 percent more than women who didn’t, although they found no effect for men. “Furthermore,” they write, “the effect is almost exclusively concentrated amongst women from families of low socioeconomic status.”

Knowing what we know about various “beauty premiums,” this strikes me as a not-very-surprising but still interesting result. The one surprise may be that there is no good-teeth effect for men, since the research of Dan Hamermesh (who’s been doing great guest blogging here lately) showed that looks actually matter more for men than for women. To quote a recent Economist article on the subject:

Just over a decade ago Dr. Hamermesh presided over a series of surveys in the United States and Canada which showed that when all other things are taken into account, ugly people earn less than average incomes, while beautiful people earn more than the average. The ugliness “penalty” for men was -9 percent while the beauty premium was +5 percent. For women, perhaps surprisingly considering popular prejudices about the sexes, the effect was less: the ugliness penalty was -6 percent while the beauty premium was +4 percent.

Since then, he has gone on to measure these effects in other places. In China, ugliness is penalized more in women, but beauty is more rewarded. The figures for men in Shanghai are -25 percent and +3 percent; for women they are -31 percent and +10 percent. In Britain, ugly men do worse than ugly women (-18 percent as against -11 percent) but the beauty premium is the same for both (and only +1 percent).

Any way you look at it, the teeth paper is yet another reminder that, as much as we might like to think that wages are perfectly correlated with talent and effort, more trivial factors always come into play.

There is, for instance, the famous argument by three Penn researchers that tall people earn more money than shorter people, although their explanation included the fact that you had to be tall as an adolescent, not the beneficiary of a later growth spurt. Why? Because, their argument went, lifetime self-esteem is heavily formed in adolescence, and you gathered up extra self-esteem if you were a tall adolescent.

Interestingly, that explanation — which always struck me as fascinating, though a bit too fantastic — has recently been challenged in a paper by Anne Case and Christina Paxson called “Stature and Status: Height, Ability, and Labor Market Outcomes” (forthcoming publication in the Journal of Political Economy). Their explanation is brutally simple:

In developed countries, researchers have emphasized factors such as self esteem, social dominance, and discrimination. In this paper, we offer a simpler explanation: On average, taller people earn more because they are smarter. As early as age 3 — before schooling has had a chance to play a role — and throughout childhood, taller children perform significantly better on cognitive tests. … Furthermore, we show that taller adults select into occupations that have higher cognitive skill requirements and lower physical skill demands.

So what does all this research mean if you are a short, not-so-attractive person with bad teeth?

It means you should get your teeth fixed.

This, by the way, is a big part of the reasoning behind the charity Smile Train, which we wrote about here. Smile Train realizes that something as relatively minor as a cleft palate can put a huge drag on your future, especially in developing countries:

Fixing a child’s cleft lip or palate is a relatively cheap procedure with outsize payoffs: cleft children in many countries are ostracized and have a hard time going to school, getting jobs and marrying, and the surgery reverses those disadvantages. Indeed, when pitching a reluctant government, [Brian] Mullaney refers to cleft children as “nonperforming assets” who can soon be returned to the economic mainstream.

If all this talk of beauty premiums and ugly penalties has you down, there’s at least one piece of good news: having a ridiculous first name, be it Fido or Loser or LemonJello, doesn’t seem to affect career earnings at all.

[Note: I’ll be discussing this subject tomorrow (Tues.) morning on The Takeaway.]


sshire

I think it's no surprise at all the women are penalized less for "ugliness" and rewarded less for "beauty" when compared with men. It has been my experience in both the academic world and the professional world that beautiful (or cute or pretty) women are taken much less seriously than their less cute or pretty counterparts. It's as if relative unattractiveness = intelligence and seriousness, whereas attractiveness = a less superior intellect. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, men and women, both with surprise, that a woman is both smart and pretty, almost as if these two traits are diametrically opposed and impossible to correlate. It is possible and not an anomoly, which I'm guessing (?) is the indirect point of this commentary?

Susan Williamson

The irony here is that if you're not making a decent income, you can't afford to have your teeth fixed, or in many cases, even basic dental care.

Carl

I was fascinated by this because, at the age of 40-something, I am in the middle of spending several thousand dollars to get the kind of orthodontic work most people in the US get as adolescents.

But one thing really annoyed me...

Can we PLEASE institute a rule that people (yes, I'm looking at you, Stephen...) are not allowed to type things like "tall people earn more money than short people" WITHOUT adding "on average"? I know that the author knows what he meant, but I'm sick of seeing stuff like this misinterpreted, e.g. "Men are stronger than women, therefore women shouldn't be allowed to do X", which sounds seductive until you put it in it's proper form: "The AVERAGE man is stronger, therefore NO woman should be allowed to do X".

For the record: I'm in the bottom quartile for height (and always have been), the top 10% for income, and test so high for IQ that I'm into the part of the tail that can't even be reliably measured. And I have terrible teeth.

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robert barker

Three women applied for a secretarial position: a blonde with excellent typing ability, a brunette with remarkable computor competence, and a redhead with outstanding communication skills.

Which one got the job?

The one with the biggest breasts.
(an old joke - what's changed?)

K.Waldegrave

Fixation on beauty and superficiality may be manifest in some countries but in one I know well the Prime Minister has crooked pearly whites and is a woman. I guess it depends on how influenced the public are by crude publicity and advertizing relating to trivia. Viva New Zealand! Now there's fod for thought.

deRuiter

This is not new, and it's true. If I'm hiring a worker or looking for a tenant, I will not take a toothless wonder. If the person doesn't think enough of himself to have good teeth, I know he or she will be sloppy as a worker or sloppy with my property. Same goes for clothing, and tattoos, forget it. You wear creepy looking tattoos visible to the public, don't come to me for a job or an apartment. I prefer dealing with normalcy and a middle to upper class ethic and look. First impressions tell you what you are going to get. You want to live in the ghetto, then toothless, body piercings, with baggy clothing and tattoos are fine, these are life style affecting choices.

pointpetre

I side with those who question floridated water as some independent, exogenous factor. There may be such an effect, but there could also be an environmental effect in which lower class people fare better in education and economic opportunity in communities that floridate water in comparison to those communities that do not floridate water.

Robert Thompson

Is dental care included in any of the health care plans being proposed by the Presidential candidates? I haven't heard it mentioned.

Chris Bolger

This isn't a surprise...

wb

Interesting recent article in Scientific American about the dangers of over-fluoridization - including discolored teeth. With that, I would doubt the original theory that fluoridation = better-appearing teeth. That's not a given. Also, fluoride would have no effect on correcting overbites and other dental irregularities. The orthodonture rate for a city would be more telling.
I confess to being horribly shallow - my first thought of meeting an adult with an uncorrected overbite or tilted/crossing teeth is that they must be of lower intelligence. I am often completely wrong, but that's just my gut prejudice that I have to correct myself on.

I'm female and I was one of the tall ones in my class until I stopped growing at age 12, at 5'4" making me on the short side. But perhaps I set my worldview of me being one of the tall ones (or at least average) before my peers outgrew me? Actually, my mother highly prized shortness since she was 5'10" and always hated being the tallest woman (or man) in our small town. She had to import Dad.

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Ben

Moving on to hair. Have noticed that male CEO's and politicians all have a full head of hair. Has this been studied?

Ben

I completely agree that having unattractive teeth can impact a person's self-esteem, which can then greatly affect their success both in the workplace and in their personal life.

I was given the antibiotic tetracycline as a child and it caused my adult teeth to be terribly discolored. From early childhood on, I've been very self-conscious about my teeth and it's very definitely affected how I present myself to others, both in the workplace and socially.

Unfortunately, the article's statement that "teeth (unlike height or looks in general) are something that can be fixed" is not entirely accurate. I've spent the last 15 years trying to cobble together the $15,000 necessary to purchase the only solution to my dental problem--expensive porcelain veneers.

Had the drug company that put tetracycline on the market taken responsibility for the damage they've inflicted and compensated the many thousands of people who've had their teeth discolored by tetracyline over the years, then I might have long ago

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Kate

Conversely, look at prison populations. Many have bad teeth, and when they get their teeth fixed, they have a new lease on life. I once interviewed with a group that helped former inmates, and fixing the teeth of these folks was high on their "to-do" list.

By the way, my father had all of his teeth pulled by the Air Force in his twenties, during Korea. His parents did not have the means or the motivation to care for his teeth. Who knows how many teeth could have been saved? Consequently, my father always had a beautiful, perfect smile, and it is one reason, I think beautiful, perfect smiles look like dentures. I had braces and some whitening, but I will not let the dentist perform his veneer magic on me, because I think a mouthful of veneers looks like my late father's dentures!

Ben

I completely agree that having unattractive teeth can impact a person's self-esteem, which can then greatly affect their success both in the workplace and in their personal life.

I was given the antibiotic tetracycline as a child and it caused my adult teeth to be terribly discolored. From early childhood on, I've been very self-conscious about my teeth and it's very definitely affected how I present myself to others, both in the workplace and socially.

Unfortunately, the article's statement that "teeth (unlike height or looks in general) are something that can be fixed" is not entirely accurate. I've spent the last 15 years trying to cobble together the $15,000 necessary to purchase the only solution to my dental problem--expensive porcelain veneers.

Had the drug company that put tetracycline on the market compensated the many thousands of people who've had their teeth discolored by tetracyline over the years, then I might long ago have been able to have my smile improved. But, well, unfortunately, that's not likely to happen, so I guess I'll just have to keep saving.

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Emmy

As a woman, I am tired of men winking and saying "just smile" as I walk down the street, or get coffee in the morning. Smiling can seem submissive, and an attempt to please. Being an unreadable cipher can pay off quite well, in my experience. And as to the study, it seems like a possible leap in logic. It could be that women from urban environments end up living and working there, where the salaries tend to be higher than in the boonies, where many people drink non-fluoridated well water. Plus, many people of higher socioeconomic status only drink non-fluoridated water, and higher socioeconomic status has been linked in other studies to higher income--what about that?

Ian

How did they control for the fact that women's salaries overall have been increasing relative to men's?

I would imagine that the time period during which most municipalities gained access to floridated water coincided somewhat with the time period that women, overall, began to earn more. No?

jbd

I once heard of a church sunday school running a covert experiment. The church 'restructured' the volunteer teaching staff, and hired only beautiful people. I believe attendence went up.

Open Photo

Alex Ovechkin became the highest-paid player in the history of his sport right about the time he acquired that famous (and very sought-after in hockey circles) gap in his smile...

Frank

Why do free dental clinics refuse to do work on poor peope's teeth? They will do small fillings, or they will pull them out. Nothing else. For many poor people, this means that they end up having teeth pulled out. Its as stupid as the requirement that poor people sell their cars before they get public assistance. (Then they insist that they find work, without a car.)

Mason

What's so sad is that dental disease is a lifetime, chronic condition. You can fix it, but you can't cure it. Everyone keeps talking about adults, but the reality is that dental disease is the most common childhood disease and it is so easily prevented. Dental disease in children impacts nutrition, speech, language development, and, ta=-da!!! - self esteem. Oh yeah, there's also that strong link to overall health and infection. Adults with unhealthy mouths were likely children with unhealthy mouths. It's not just a lifestyle choice and it's not just about fluoridation or the high costs of dental care - it's about prioritizing the mouth as a part of the body and investing (quite cheaply) in prevention starting with very young children.