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So maybe it doesn’t pay to be beautiful  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

Or at least, maybe there is no “ugliness penalty” if you are not beautiful. We’ve written a number of times here about the many benefits given to those who are seen as beautiful or attractive. This paper debunks the stereotype and says that salary goes beyond appearance and individual differences matter too.

The researchers used a nationally representative US data set (from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health aka “Add Health”) with “precise and repeated measures of physical attractiveness”. In this data set, are researcher-ratings of physical attractiveness of all participants (on a five-point scale) at four different points over a 13 year period. And what did they find? Overall, say the authors, the “beauty premium” completely disappeared when other factors (e.g., health, intelligence, better personality traits) were controlled for statistically.

“Physically more attractive workers may earn more, not necessarily because they are more beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent, and have better personality traits conducive to higher earnings, such as being more Conscientious, more Extraverted, and less Neurotic,” explains Kanazawa.

Other research would say that beauty or attractiveness could account for some of these other personality characteristics as they can be shaped by how others respond to us. As the authors discuss their findings, they mention this reality and comment that (because the dataset ended at age 29) they are unable to account for the impact of life experience on Neuroticism (for example).

“To the extent that physically less attractive individuals are more likely to have negative life experiences, physical attractiveness may still be an ultimate cause of earnings via Neuroticism.”

However, there was also evidence for an “ugliness premium” (which is the opposite of an ugliness penalty)—in which the less attractive you were, the more you were paid. In this dataset, these were the people rated as “very unattractive” and, oddly, they always earned more than those rated as “unattractive”. And, even more surprising, sometimes the “very unattractive” earned more than those described as “average-looking” or even “attractive”.

The authors tell us the reason this sort of finding was not reported in earlier research was that the “very unattractive” and “unattractive” groups were often lumped together in a “below average” category that prevented researchers from seeing the benefits of being “very unattractive”.

Overall, say the authors, there is some evidence for the beauty premium but no evidence for the ugliness penalty. Further, there is strong evidence for the (very) ugliness premium. They point out that this survey did not continue after age 29 and thus cannot answer the question of whether the beauty premium or the ugliness penalty are cumulative throughout working careers. On the other hand, the inclusion of attractiveness ratings in a dataset is highly unusual and the authors hope more researchers will include these ratings in the future datasets.

“Physical attractiveness is a very neglected variable in social science data, and no other longitudinal data sets on a representative sample measures it as precisely as Add Health does.”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, we think beauty goes a long way in a party, a witness, and even an attorney. On the other hand, there can be a beauty backlash, so you need to watch for that in pretrial research as well. The likability factor is also very important and even an unattractive witness can seem more appealing when likable. (You can see our more than 200 posts on witness preparation here.)

From a law office management perspective, this is also an area to which you need to pay special attention. You will want to modify procedures so that promotions and salary increases are based on objective performance data and not on gender, beauty, age, ethnicity, disability status and so on. (You can see 60+ posts on law office management here.)

[We want to give you full disclosure regarding the research report cited in this post. The senior author is a very controversial figure whom colleagues have criticized as unreliable and/or as a researcher who personifies “bad science”. He has been criticized for many things and fired from several writing positions due to the negative and public reactions to his work. You can make your own judgments as to the merit of this research but we wanted you to have the full picture.]

Kanazawa, S., & Still, MC (2017). Is there really a beauty premium or an ugliness penalty on earnings? Journal of Business and Psychology.

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