Search the Site

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.
Q. Something I’ve always wondered: Do attractive people show up later to meetings / events / interviews etc.? That is my intuition but has anyone ever studied it? – James
A. I’ve never seen a study of this, but my intuition is the same as yours.  If you have another desirable characteristic, such as beauty, you might be more willing to indulge your tardy behavior.
Q. (Just ordered your book, so all I’ve read is what’s available in the Amazon preview.) On pp. 35-36, you say that we’re basically stuck with the hand nature has dealt us, even with cosmetics, surgery, etc. Is this only in regards to facial beauty? It would seem that from the neck down, there is much more room for improvement (or to let yourself go). – BL1Y
A. That’s certainly the case.  Chapter 3 deals with whether beauty is affected by weight; and the evidence is pretty clear that, except for the morbidly obese, our weight doesn’t affect others’ perceptions of our looks.  Looks are based on what people perceive about our face.
Q. How can we (individually and corporately) resist this economic force, and how can we best train our children to resist it? – Quin
A. That’s a tough question.  This economic force is, in my view, totally atavistic, yet it’s pervasive.  I like to think that I, and our children, have done our best to inculcate in our offspring the notion that this shouldn’t matter—I guess by correcting them gently if they make a “lookist” remark.  But it’s difficult.
Q. I don’t want to know how to even the playing field. I want to know how to utterly defeat pretty people–and to do it without having to work harder or be smarter. I know the answer probably has to do with having photos of the boss in a compromising position, but maybe you have another path to success. From looking at Dubner’s and Levitt’s pictures, I know they want to know this too! –AaronS
A. Cute final line!!!  I wouldn’t recommend any of your solutions, that’s for sure.  Rather, as the book advises, take advantage of what you’re good at—other things in which you have a comparative advantage.  Looks are only one of many things that affect success—and surely you, like everyone else, have other characteristics that can help you get ahead.
Q. I’m curious about self-awareness of beauty. We’re often aware of our competency in many skills and physical traits. Someone who is tall is tall; a great typist knows by their high WPM. There is often said to be a type of person who is beautiful “and knows it.” Are these people more apt to leverage the advantages beauty brings, or is it an inherent value booster in all who have it? Two equivalent fast typists in the same job would hypothetically perform the same. What about two equivalently attractive people, but one is less aware of their relative attractiveness? –Eddie
A. I don’t know the answer to your final question—I’ve seen nothing on it.  But I did look at some data that had both others’ ratings of a person’s beauty and his/her self-rating.  They were very highly positively correlated, suggesting that people are aware of how good- or bad-looking they are.  Interestingly, on average, ratings by other people were higher/more favorable by a little bit than were the self-ratings.
Q. Us ugly guys could exploit the “American Idol Loophole”–you know, where grossly untalented people think they can really sing? Maybe there are incredibly beautiful women who think they look terrible…and we could make their day by marrying them despite their terrible “shortcoming.” We’d be heroes in their eyes! –AaronS
A. Sadly, most people are pretty aware of their own looks, so I don’t think this strategy is going to work.  Sorry!
Q. Have you noticed any ways that beauty is a double edged sword? Bill James had a good statement on this topic in Moneyball by Michael Lewis, where he equates a potential blessing as a possible bane: (paraphrased) “A pitcher’s velocity on his fastball, is like looks on a girl. It matters but its not everything”. I took this to mean that while you maybe gifted in one area, in this case velocity/attractiveness, it may lead to short comings elsewhere – pitcher’s accuracy or a girl’s personality. –Steve S
A. The evidence suggests that beauty, like so many genetic endowments, is uncorrelated with other things that are genetically based.  Now it may be that, knowing you’re good-looking, you don’t bother developing in other areas; but it’s equally possible that your beauty gives you the self-confidence to develop a great personality too.
Q. Does Hamermesh have to give the Freak blog a cut of sales to have this book ‘advertisement’ appear at the top of the blog for the day (tell me it isn’t longer than a day!) i.e. Featured Post? –Tg3
A. Maybe there is normally a featured post that stays at the top for a day. This is the first one that I have noticed.
Q. The history of what defines beauty would be interesting to know, as well as the gender gap in good looks. Men can look plain and not be criticized, while plain women are told to get makeovers. –pinkbunnyhat7
A. True—but the history suggests things have been very similar for a very long time.  Indeed, while standards of beauty have changed somewhat, go back and look at 19th century pictures and you’ll have no trouble picking out the ugly and the gorgeous.
Q. Here in the UK, this book is not available yet, I’ve only been able to read what’s been posted around the internet by the author I want to talk about a very controversial evolutionary psychologist who has published a blog post called “Beautiful people are more intelligent.” Could it be that attractive people make more money partially because of their good looks but more so because they are more intelligent? –Leon Y

A. I’ve seen this study; but in two of my own pieces, and others I’ve seen, there is little or no correlation between looks and intelligence.  Moreover, in several studies others and I have held constant (adjusted statistically) for intelligence, and that adjustment has not altered the estimated impact of looks on earnings. So the answer to your question seems to be a clear no.
Q. I forgot to add I have seen studies claiming that more attractive men were more likely to be hired, but the opposite was true of women, possibly because the admin and recruitment departments of many firms have a higher proportion of female staff who may be jealous at another womans beauty. Could this also add to the disparity in the effect on income of beauty by gender? –Leon Y
A. The one study you quote was not of actual hiring, but of intentions to hire. In general, as you move up the looks scale, both among men and women, you do better.  I’ve only seen when case where that wasn’t true—on the odds of making partner in law firms if you are a truly gorgeous woman.
Q. What happens when it seems everybody’s too good looking? Regular Joe
A. Great question—put differently, what if we all got more beautiful?  I don’t know, it’s very hard to get at that statistically.  I’m trying to do some work now on a closely related topic.
Q. Attractive people may be more successful, but hot chicks are also dumber, and here I explain why: Moser
A. I’ve seen this study; but in two of my own pieces, and others I’ve seen, there is little or no correlation between looks and intelligence.  Moreover, in several studies others and I have held constant (adjusted statistically) for intelligence, and that adjustment has not altered the estimated impact of looks on earnings. So the answer to your question seems to be a clear no.
Q. I’ve long said that the most advantaged group in the world is attractive American women. I’d like to see unemployment stats on this group, I suspect that its below 2%. I really don’t see how any woman who is a 9 or 10 on the looks scale can be unable to find reasonable work of some kind. –rationalrevolution
A. I’d say that the worst case scenario for them would be waiting tables or something, whereas for an unattractive man the worst case is permanent unemployment or something like commercial fishing or garbage collector, etc., and even then they’d still be lucky to get the job.
Q. As always we have to be careful not to mistake correlation for causation. Intelligent people living in a meritocracy do, and should, enjoy above average financial success regardless of their looks. This success perhaps provides them with the opportunity to choose a better-than-average looking spouse, with whom they will produce better-than-average looking , and intelligent children, who will in turn earn a higher income. In this case, it is Darwinian natural selection that causes the correlation you observe, and not some form of “appearance discrimination” among employers. –Greg
A. No, like so many characteristics, looks are much less heritable than most people think.
Q. What about environmental/income factors associated with attractiveness, such as teeth, weight, skin? –Sio
A. It’s clear that, except for the morbidly obese, ratings of looks are independent of weight.  I’ve seen nothing on teeth, though.
Q. Beauty is a funny thing – and as I’ve heard, isn’t it in the eyes of the beholder? If Mr. Hamermesh is still taking questions, I’d like to know how accurate he believes the ratings on ‘beauty’ are, and what accounts for it – general opinion or the golden ratio? What about age and race discrepancies between raters and rates?  –Yefan C.
A. Sure it’s in the eye of the beholder, but people tend to agree—not perfectly, but substantially. And ratings differ by age, and by race, and by gender. And there are slight differences depending on the gender/race of the rater—but not huge differences.  Check out Chapter 2 of the book on this.
Q. I would like to know how accurate are we when it comes to judging our own looks? Are we usually on par with with others think of us? Are men or women better at it? –Rever
A. One set of data had both others’ and our own ratings.  The correlation was extremely highly positive.  However, on average others tend to rate us slightly better than we rate ourselves. And women are slightly more accurate (more in accord with others’ ratings) than are men.