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Seven ways your looks affect your economic well-being

If Angelina Jolie were an average worker like the rest of us, her pay would probably be above average.
If Angelina Jolie were an average worker like the rest of us, her pay would probably be above average.
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Being pretty already has all sorts of benefits, but it's not just the joy of having gorgeous cheekbones or finding super-attractive people to mate with. Having it going on also means a fatter bank account and better career prospects. The study of beauty and economics been dubbed "pulchronomics" by Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas who has studied the intersection of beauty and economics for decades.

Here's a quick pulchronomics rundown — a list of the various ways being attractive can affect a person's economic well-being, and not all of them for the better.

Bigger lifetime earnings

In his 2011 book "Beauty Pays," Hamermesh uses data from the 1970s to estimate that over the course of a lifetime, the average worker with above-average looks would earn 3 to 4 percent more than a below-average-looking worker. That totals out to around $230,000 over the course of a lifetime. The gaps are also sizable between those groups: the difference between the lookers and the average people was around $140,000. The lifetime pay difference between the below-average people and average was smaller, at $90,000. And there isn't much evidence, he writes, that these effects are tied to whatever higher confidence comes with being pretty. He's not the only one to have found this: a 2011 study from the University of Wisconsin found strong correlations between looks and earnings among men. That said, other research from the University of Miami suggests grooming and personality account for some of the beauty premium, not just facial attractiveness.

Interestingly, Hamermesh found the effects appear smaller for women than men. That doesn't seem to make sense — the conventional wisdom is that society values a woman's appearance more than a man's. But Hamermesh hypothesizes that, as women are more likely to stay home and not work than men are, prettier women are more incentivized to work than their less-attractive peers. That would mean the mix of women in the workplace is prettier than your average lady.

Better performance in the corner office

An attractive CEO makes a company a more attractive investment, as The Atlantic's Derek Thompson reported earlier this year in his rundown on beauty and earnings. According to a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, CEOs with more attractive faces tended to have better stock market performance in their first days on the job and also after merger and acquisitions. Not only that, but those CEOs' companies' stocks performed better after the CEOs appeared on TV, an effect that did not repeat when the CEOs' quotes appeared in newspapers, further convincing researchers that the effect was due to looks.

A "meh" attitude toward inequality

People who consider themselves more attractive also tend to both think inequality is less of a problem and care less about remedying it, as Vox reported in April. People who think they are prettier tend to believe more in the idea that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and less in the idea that some groups, like women and minorities, are systematically paid less. (Importantly, this study is about people's perceptions of their own attractiveness, but researchers did attempt to control for self-esteem.)

A lower likelihood of being behind bars

The prettier the person, the less likely they are to resort to a life of crime. One 2006 study examined subjects' "pre-labor-market" looks (i.e., how cute they were in high school) and found that people who were more attractive in their youth were less likely than their homelier peers to commit all sorts of crimes several years after high school.

This may have something to do with Hamermesh and other researchers' findings on the intersection of people's earnings and looks. In this case, researchers hypothesized that worse labor market outcomes for less attractive people might lead them to committing crimes in order to better get by — less-attractive people weigh the costs and benefits of work versus crime and "sort" themselves into engaging in criminal activity.

A premium for skinny people — especially white women

It's no secret that American society generally considers skinnier more attractive. And being skinnier is also more lucrative. Several studies have shown that obesity hurts people's earnings, and particularly women's earnings. But it may not just be obesity that hurts; even having a few extra pounds can be bad for women, and particularly white women. One 2009 study found that among women, earnings fall off as women's body mass indexes go beyond 23 — which falls within a normal weight range. For men, it was higher, at around 27 (though the men's results varied depending on the estimation technique the researchers used).

A (complicated) payoff for height

Height is, of course, not necessarily synonymous with beauty. But several studies have shown that this is one aspect of people's looks that seems to be associated with higher earnings. One famous University of Florida study showed that each additional inch in a worker's height added around $790 in annual pay.

However, it's not necessarily that hiring managers look at a tall person and decide to pay more. One 2010 study, for example, shows that taller children tended to score higher on cognitive and non-cognitive tests, and determined that these greater abilities both account for the "stature premium" that is paid to taller workers. The researchers suggest that nutrition and childhood social development play into this correlation. That said, the Florida researchers suggested evolution: we ascribe leadership characteristics to people who tower over us.

Being a beautiful woman isn't necessarily great

It's not all great news for attractive people. There is some evidence that being beautiful can hurt a woman's prospects in getting "masculine jobs" like tow truck driver or hardware salesperson. When asked to sort photos of men and women into jobs, subjects in one 2010 study tended to put more beautiful women into more "feminine" jobs like secretary. Though this may have been a matter of putting attractive women in customer-facing positions, it could also be a case of gender discrimination.


This is all entertaining, but it points to a few important economic ideas: for one thing, employers appear willing to pay a premium for beauty, for whatever reason. Beauty is, by definition, a scarce commodity, Hamermesh writes in his book, and it's also tradable — people trade it for higher wages and more pleasant interactions with colleagues. And that means the hundreds of billions of dollars Americans spend annually on their looks may not simply be about vanity; whether we're conscious of it or not, it's a rational choice to try to look prettier.