Reasons to Not Be Ugly (Ep. 153)

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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 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.


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.


Evolutionary speaking isn't true we will always be attracted to the whatever well we find most attractive? Isn't for the benefit of humans make sure pretty(since symmetrical, hour glass, V-shaped torso equals fertile) people succeed for the success of our own species? For humans to live and procreate to the best of our ability we will always choose what we feel is attractive.

steve cebalt

@ James and NZ:

Churchill was hot.


That cute kid thing made me so sad....

Dory Ungray

Yes, but good looks don't last. Isn't it pathetic how those who were pretty when young fail to age gracefully? How happy are they now?


Much of this podcast seems to assume that ability is not correlated with facial symmetry, which seems like a strange a priori conclusion. My admittedly limited understanding is that facial symmetry is correlated with genetic health and a healthy upbringing (e.g., less exposure to environmental toxins and other stressors, etc.). So saying that athletes who are assumed to be extreme outliers in terms of physical ability exhibit traits of correlated with good long-term health doesn't seem like a surprising conclusion. Was the study controlling for physical ability?