The Economics of an Ugly Boyfriend

Naked self-promotion: the third edition of my book, Economics Is Everywhere (Worth Publishers), has just appeared. It contains little articles like those I have included on this blog (and, no doubt, some of the posts from this blog will be included in the fourth edition). I love many of the stories, but my all-time favorite from among the 700 that have been in the book’s various editions combines several basic economic ideas:

One of the students came up with what is perhaps the most amusing negative externality example that I have heard in my teaching career.

Her roommate is beautiful, but her roommate’s boyfriend, so she says, is very, very ugly. No problem, except that the roommate has a poster-sized photograph of the boyfriend on the wall on her side of the room, a poster that my student has to view whenever she is on her own side of the room.

I ask my student why, if the guy is so ugly, her roommate goes out with him, and she answers, “He goes to Harvard; and he’s also a very nice guy.” This illustrates the importance of human capital in the matching market that is dating, and also that looks aren’t everything, either. We also supply personality and the ability to get ahead, both of which are valued by the labor market and thus by potential spouses. Indeed, careful research shows that, compared with average-looking women, good-looking women marry guys with an extra year of education. Today, an extra year of education is associated with about an extra twelve percent annual earnings.

Jane Gray

Why is comment 3 quoting something from the slate article on tennis players ("I'd much rather watch attractive play by an unattractive player, than unattractive play by an attractive player.") Smells like a blogger just trying to boost his/her "campus compare" website on the flimsiest excuse possible. Read that comment. it doesn't even make sense!

Nad Vega

This particular negative externality is easy to avoid: a decent stylist, a talented photographer, and the guy would be eye candy, at least on the photo.

Joan A.



who says he's ugly? - the jealous, unHarvarded roomate.

Matt H

Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder...


Hmmm.. I didn't read "Harvard" as "rich", I read it as "smart." Interesting that some of the commenter's insecurities may be showing...

Mark S.

"I think the opposite can be true for women. The more education and income they have, the less desirable they become."

Is that true of Scandinavia and The Netherlands as well ? Places that score lower on the power distance and masculinity index.


" 'Today, an extra year of education is associated with about an extra twelve percent annual earnings.'

Does this apply to every additional year of education?"

There is another more powerful relationship involved. People's looks are an even more important indicator of future earning power. His Harvard degree may, in the end, not result in a significantly better income. Future earnings is on a curve and his lack of good looks will likely place him in the low end of the curve and be a major impediment to getting promotions.


As Marilyn Monroe said in "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds", "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?" And it works both ways: one can hardly imagine that were she not rich and famous, the 41 year old Kylie Minogue could have attracted her 31 year old Spanish model boyfriend.


Never underestimate the power of charm and a good sense of humor. And this works both for men and women. Have you never seen a handsome man going out with a not so good looking woman?



Harvard probably doesn't mean rich now (majority of students are on financial aid), but it can mean rich later. The girlfriend knows if he is pre-med/law/business.


I go to Penn and it's very common to see unattractive men with no game with beautiful girls from Drexel. (The universities are next to each other) While it makes sense from an evolutionary psychological perspective, I have a hard time believing that the decisions are always conscious. Are 18 to 22 year old girls, most of whom have little financial independence, really deciding to date guys with comparatively more financially valuable degrees? I suspect the financial mating advantage comes across as believing someone is a nice guy - which obviously is a subjective measure. I also wonder if the positive correlation between intelligence and attractiveness means that women view a man they think more attractive than they would otherwise.


"unattractive' have additional benefits.

1) They are less likely to be cheated with by short-term relationship seeking people.
2) They are less likely to want to cheat. (unattractiveness often springs from shallow gene pool, caused by coming from a long line of non-cheaters)
3) The perceived value that an attractive person provides an unattractive person is higher than what they can provide an attractive person, so you can negotiate for more in return, or less, depending on how you want to structure the deal...
4) in the case that offspring happens, they unattractive people are more likely to believe the child is their's, due to the child's increased likelihood of inheritance of a 'rare' physical feature.
5) All else being equal, successful unattractive people come from a line of predecessors that have figured out how to be successful without the aid of good physical features, and if currently successful gained/maintained such success in ways that aren't as easily erased in the digital world.
6) Shallow gene pool can also mean rare gene pool, and as such, can be of higher value to an attractive person that is more main stream in gene variety.

there's probably more.



Good looking women may have on average, under-invested in intellectual endeavors. Being good looking is a lot of work and studying all the time can get people overweight and/or wrinkled.

Possibly too, good looking women are also not as much of risk-takers, and the Harvard guy was an opportunist who just appealed to her with she was down. It may have been easier to fashion a nice life with a lot of stuff, with the not so good looking guy. Than to try to "re-market" and deal with some rejection before getting to a good looking guy who could at least be employed.

Also, college is a time when many people adjust their dating preferences and favor the smart over the stunning.

She could just also be calculating that her looks are fading and she should latch on to a guy she can reasonably hold on too for the long-run.(another sign of a risk-adverse personality)

It is completely common knowledge that many stunning girls are less stunning after college wears them down.



Don't forget that an ugly boyfriend is less likely to be poached by the roommate.

lorenzo semple jr

just remember the old adage ... if you want to get ahead with a girl, regardless of yr own looks, compliment a pretty girl on her brains and an unattractive girl on her looks.

Solomon Jr.


oh really... next thing you are going to try and convince me that men pay thier higher earnings for sex.

oh gasp, how shocking.


No one will ever convince me that this is not the reason for so many divorces. Generally speaking, people are attracted to someone's LOOKS. Then after being around them for a while they find that they're not what they thought they were where it counts the most...ON THE INSIDE.

Michelle C.

Out of necessity, ugly boys often develop other "talents" and "skills" desired by girls to impress them.


"2) They are less likely to want to cheat. (unattractiveness often springs from shallow gene pool, caused by coming from a long line of non-cheaters)"

Wow. Where does this premise come from?