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The Beauty Penalty

October 12, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

It has been generally concluded that beautiful people earn more money than others. This conclusion is called into question in a thoughtful analysis of some new and previously used data sets (Doran & Hersch, 2009). After adding a number of corrections, robustness checks, and additional controls to the reanalyzed data, these researchers conclude that real-world evidence for the beauty premium is not robust and “is either non-existent or entirely mediated through other variables” (p. 16). This result is, for me, perplexing. For example, Markus & Mobius (2006), using an analog study, found that a one standard deviation increase in beauty results in a 12.1% increase in wages. Leigh & Borland (2007), using data from the Australian National Social Science Survey (1984), found that the same one standard deviation increase in beauty improves the probability of employment by 4% in men and 5% in women. It seems that beauty gives – at least – an initial wage-earning advantage. Further, there is evidence that beautiful people grow-up in social environments that foster marketable skills (e.g., increased confidence, verbal skills [Markus & Mobius, 2006], and productivity [Cipriani & Zago, 2005]). So, what’s going on?

Wilson & Eckel (2006) and Andreoni & Petrie (2008) conducted separate analog studies that shed light on the intra- and interpersonal dynamics behind what seems to be a disappearing beauty premium. Their data suggests:

  • we have higher expectations of the beautiful;
  • the beautiful are more suspicious of others’ expectations;
  • commonly, the beautiful do not meet others’ expectations;
  • when expectations are not met, the beautiful appear more stuck-up or selfish to others and as a result are punished more than are the non-beautiful.

The implication may be that the beauty premium can be capitalized-on in those relationships where others’ increased expectations of the beautiful are met. When others’ increased expectations are not met, the beauty penalty kicks-in. Beauty, it seems, is a two-edged sword.

Wayne Hooke

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


Andreoni, J., & Petrie, R. (2008). Beauty, gender and stereotypes: Evidence from laboratory experiments. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29(1), 73-93. doi: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.07.008.

Cipriani, G. P., & Zago, A. (2005). Productivity or Discrimination? Beauty and the Exams. Università Degli Studi Di Verona, Dipartimento Di Scienze Economiche, Working Paper Series, 18.

Doran, K., & Hersch, J. (n.d.). The Beauty Premium is Not Robust. Retrieved October 7, 2009, from http://www.nd.edu/~kdoran/BeautyNotRobust.pdf

Markus M. Mobius, & Tanya S. Rosenblat. (2006). Why Beauty Matters. American Economic Review, American Economic Review, 96(1), 222-235. Retrieved October 7, 2009, from http://ideas.repec.org/a/aea/aecrev/v96y2006i1p222-235.html.

Wilson, R., & Eckel, C. (2006). Judging a Book by its Cover: Beauty and Expectations in the Trust Game Political Research Quarterly, 59 (2), 189-202 DOI: 10.1177/106591290605900202

Categories: Social Evaluations
  1. Flymises
    October 13, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Interesting! However, I was under the impression that beauty (characterised by symmetry, surveys and other facial analysis) correlates with higher IQ, and of course we know that higher IQ correlates with higher earnings too.

    Additionally, I recall that beauty tends to correlate with greater health, on average (in terms of diseases that are either genetic or that have a genetic element or trigger in some way, which is most serious diseases/ailments.)

    These kinds of benefits would also help income considerably!

  2. whooke
    October 14, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Exactly! Doran & Hersch leave some room for this when they say “mediated through other variables”. According to this analysis, if there is a beauty premium it results solely from the sorts of things you’ve identified.


  3. December 19, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Whenever I see scientists’ images of a ‘beautiful’ face, it tends to be one which looks fairly youthful. Do you think there are issues with ‘beautiful’ people being perceived as younger than they are? And could this hinder their earning power or employability?

    (PS I enjoyed this blog very much, lots of really interesting ideas!)

    • whooke
      December 21, 2009 at 11:43 am

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! About beauty and youthfulness, being very young and beautiful probably has a small effect on age estimation in the upward direction; being mature and beautiful probably does the opposite: though I haven’t seen data on this. About earning power/employability: being perceived as young could interfere – or it could help. My guess is that there are differences between industries/careers (e.g., being appointed/elected as a judge compared to sales or service industries) and possibly sex differences. I’d also expect differences between cultures (youth-valuing versus maturity-valuing cultures will likely exhibit differences in biases).

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