This Freakonomics: Reasons to Not Be Ugly 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.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Dave Berri is a sports economist. He recently had a Skype chat with Suzie Lechtenberg, a producer on Freakonomics Radio.
Dave BERRI: Yeah, let’s look up Russell Wilson here.
Suzie LECHTENBERG: I’m going to look him up at the same time.
BERRI: So, he’s at 99.4.
DUBNER: There’s a computer program called Symmeter — a lot of plastic surgeons use it — where you can upload a photograph and it will tell you, on a scale of 100, just how attractive you are. As the name implies, the Symmeter score is based on how symmetrical your features are. The average human being is a 92. So, at 99.4, Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, is doing all right.
BERRI: So, is he good looking or not?
LECHTENBERG: Yeah. He’s cute. He is cute. He’s very symmetrical.
BERRI: He is very sym-that is the key, to be symmetrical… I think he works out.
LECHTENBERG: I think he does, too.
DUBNER: Berri and some colleagues were looking into the relationship between physical attractiveness and salary for NFL quarterbacks. This is the kind of thing economists have been doing for years …
BERRI: There’s this whole literature in economics on how beauty affects the evaluation of workers…
DUBNER: So Berri and his colleagues fed photographs of 194 NFL quarterbacks, past and present, into the program. Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons is a 99.8.
BERRI: So he’s very attractive by quarterback standards.
DUBNER: There’s also, of course, Mr. Bundchen:
BERRI: Tom Brady… who is at 98.98, or virtually 99.
LECHTENBERG: Mmm humm.
DUBNER: Peyton Manning did much better than I would have thought – no offense, Peyton Manning – a 98.97…
BERRI: A little bit below Tom Brady.
DUBNER: Colin Kaepernick from the 49ers’ is a 98.7. Then there’s the Chicago Bears’ quarterback:
LECHTENBERG: Jay Cutler?
BERRI: Let’s see, where is Jay Cutler on our list?
DUBNER: Cutler does okay.
BERRI: There he is: 98.76. He’s about average, for a quarterback.
DUBNER: So what did these researchers learn about the relationship between quarterback looks and pay? First, we should point out the obvious and say that looks are very, very, very secondary to quarterback ability.
BERRI: It’s not as if you go and get Brad Pitt and you put him in a football uniform then he’s now a $20 million quarterback.
DUBNER: Okay, caveat noted. So what did they find?
BERRI: What we found is that a standard deviation change in symmetry, which was a 3.2 difference in the symmetry score, results in about a 12 percent increase in salary and that worked out to be $378,000 in additional pay. So being a more attractive quarterback led to, by the standards of the NFL, a small bump in pay.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MUSIC: Richard Ames, “Gymnopedie No. 1 (Clarinet and Strings)”]
DUBNER: On today’s show, we’re talking about looks – good looks, and bad looks, and why it matters. All right, so Dan, at birth — cuter baby, ugly baby, does the cuter baby have an advantage at that moment in the way it’s going to be accepted and raised?
Daniel HAMERMESH: Yep. It gets cuddled more by mama probably and certainly gets oohed and aahed over by onlookers, grandmas, grandpas, and friends.
DUBNER: That’s Dan Hamermesh. He’s an economist at the University of Texas.
DUBNER: Okay, a kid in let’s say grade school — ugly kids — gets penalized how, and how long does that last?
HAMERMESH: I don’t know how long it lasts, but in a lot of studies by social psychologists showing that in fact better looking kids in grade schools have more friends, uglier ones are shunned to a larger extent on the playground, etc.
DUBNER: And what about how the teachers treat a kid in grade school or high school?
HAMERMESH: No question about it, they react more strongly, more positively to a better looking kid. They tend to grade them easier, and so on.
[MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Street Sweep” (from Entre Nous)]
DUBNER: Within economics, Hamermesh is the eminence grise of looks – especially what’s called the “beauty premium.” So what’s he look like?
HAMERMESH: I think on a 5 to 1 scale, I put myself in the middle as a 3.
DUBNER: Ok. There you go.
HAMERMESH: The problem with that of course is on “The Daily Show” when I did that, the interviewer, Jason Jones said 3 out of 10.
[THE DAILY SHOW AUDIO]
Jason JONES: …according to University of Texas economist, Daniel Hamermesh, one part of society is still suffering in ways we’ve never imagined.
HAMERMESH: Ugly people.
JONES: And you know all of this because you are….
HAMERMESH: …an economist…
HAMERMESH….No an economist
HAMERMESH: I’m a professor of economics who has done a lot of research on this…
HAMERMESH: I would think I’m average.
JONES: So as a cold hard factual number you would consider yourself a…
JONES: Three out of 10, that sounds about right.
HAMERMESH: I would be a 3 out of 5.
JONES: Three out of 5! (Laughs.)
DUBNER: Whatever you can say to Hamermesh about his looks, and how it relates to his work – he’s heard it before.
HAMERMESH: I have been doing research in economics for well on almost 50 years now on a whole variety of topics in the field of labor markets and labor issue. One of them which I’ve been pursuing for almost 20 years has been the impact of looks on various markets and thinking about looks and how it affects our life in a whole variety of ways.
DUBNER: Great, now Dan you were among the first if not the first economist to do this kind of work on how your looks affect your outcomes in life?
HAMERMESH: There were a few papers that did very, very short studies of specific instances of looks affecting wages. And what I and a coauthor, Jeff Biddle of Michigan State, did was do that in a very comprehensive way on random samples of people and then started thinking more and more about what the cause is, what’s going on here, how markets can be affected by looks. And so it led to a whole variety of research on the general effect of looks and the economic outcomes.
DUBNER: What interested you from the start?
DUBNER: That was not a loaded question! You took it as if it was loaded.
HAMERMESH: No, not at all, it’s just embarrassing because I happen to see in a totally different context in a data set that I was using a question on looks and I wondered gee how does that affect economic outcomes and in particular wages? And it got me started on this and I’ve now published seven different papers plus a book on this topic.
DUBNER: Okay, so give us a thumbnail, what have you found, what does the data tell us about the earnings, let’s say, of ugly people?
HAMERMESH: Well it depends on the country you use, but there’s now been studies of effects of beauty on earnings on large random cross sections in about six different countries. And the evidence is overwhelming that there is an effect. In the U.S. I’d say for men it would be maybe for the ugliest, if I may use that word, sixth or seventh it would be a loss of earnings, everything else the same, all else equal, between 8 and 10 percent, perhaps. For women, a shade less of a negative effect. That would be in the U.S. It’s a bit less elsewhere because of course like every dimension here, we have more inequality in wages than most any other rich country.
DUBNER: When you found that men are penalized more in the labor markets for being ugly than women, were you surprised?
HAMERMESH: I was surprised, and that’s the result of all the results that we’ve gotten over the years that drives people crazy. When it was first publicized, which is now almost exactly 20 years ago, it caused a furor in the Wall Street Journal. I remember giving a talk at Brigham Young University and making the comment that women get penalized less and therefore ugly women tend to stay at home. And since Mormon women stay at home a lot, they took this as my implying that Mormon women are bad looking, which it wasn’t at all. It caused a furor, and I thought I was going to be egged on stage. That result more than anything else is surprising, but it’s easily explicable by the fact that there is a selection issue there. Guys mostly work, women don’t work as much. And if you’re a bad looking woman who is penalized in the labor market you’re more likely to stay at home. So we select out bad looking women from the labor market.
DUBNER: I see, so it’s not a comment necessarily on how the the labor market is more generous toward less good looking women. It’s a selection issue.
HAMERMESH: It’s a selection issue. It’s a positive selection into work based on looks.
DUBNER: So you’re saying that bad-looking people earn less money – how much money are we talking about, over the course of a lifetime?
HAMERMESH: Well let’s say the average person’s going to earn $1.6 million undiscounted over his lifetime. That’s about the average 40-year earnings, today. We’re talking, therefore, a couple hundred thousand for people who are in the bottom, men who are in the bottom sixth of earnings. These are pretty bad looking people. I don’t think everybody would classify somebody in that category. But for somebody who is classified in the bottom twelfth, really near the bottom, people would agree that person is pretty bad looking.
DUBNER: Now tell me this, is that very…Okay, so you’re talking about a very, very significant wage penalty, a couple hundred thousand dollars less in earnings over the course of the lifetime. Tell me, how do we know that’s because of their looks and not just because of the professions that get sorted into, which may be because of their looks but may not be?
HAMERMESH: Certainly the professions into which you sort, looks do matter. But there are so many other things that matter. People choose occupations based upon all the advantages that they see. No question looks affect the sorting. But huge numbers of studies now have done not just what we did in random cross sections of the entire population, but have looked at, if I may, pardon, say this, have looked at looks within large numbers of different occupations, and except for one example, in everyone of these occupations, ranging from NFL quarterback, to god help us, professors, as well, professors of economics even, being better looking helps you, being worse looking hurts you.
DUBNER: And what was the exception?
HAMERMESH: Armed robbers.
HAMERMESH: Robbers it turned out to be negative, because, 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.
[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “The Swagger” (from My Generation)]
Erdal TEKIN: When I started working on this paper I started looking at mug shots on the Internet…
DUBNER: That’s Erdal Tekin. He’s an economist at Georgia State. He and a colleague, Naci Mocan, wrote a paper called “Ugly Criminals.” Tekin remembers what got him interested in the topic. It was about 10 years ago:
TEKIN: I was on a plane trip from Boston to Atlanta and I was reading a newspaper and I saw this quote by a bank robber that got my attention. And exactly… the quote was, “I am too ugly to get a job.” And that was his statement after he gets caught in a bank robbery in 2003. The idea was to see if there is a relationship between physical attractiveness and criminal propensities.
DUBNER: So… is there a relationship between ugliness and crime?
TEKIN: Yes, being very unattractive increases the individual’s propensity for criminal activity for a number of crimes ranging from burglary to theft to selling illicit drugs. And the effects are anywhere from half a percentage point to one and a half percentage point. So to the extent that crime is a rare activity to begin with, these are not trivial effects.
DUBNER: Here’s how Tekin and Mocan summarize their findings: “Unattractive individuals commit more crime in comparison to average-looking ones, and very attractive individuals commit less crime in comparison to those who are average looking.” Now, why might this be? Well, as Dan Hamermesh told us, the worse you look, the more you’re penalized in the labor market – the legitimate labor market – which might give you an incentive, maybe even an advantage, in the criminal world. So, coming up on Freakonomics Radio … if the ugly penalty is so big, can’t you just change the way you look?
HAMERMESH: The only thing that would really do it, in my own case, is if somebody put me under, completely broke all the bones in my face, and rearranged them to make it better.
DUBNER: Also, faces made for radio. Public radio:
Robert SIEGEL: When I’m shaving in the morning looking at the mirror, I’m just stunned, I see Cary Grant. Apart from the height, the hair, the teeth, the looks, whatever, I think… I see Cary Grant.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
[MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Old New School”]
DUBNER: So if bad-looking people do worse than good-looking people in the job market, do they do worse in other places too? Here’s Dan Hamermesh again, the University of Texas economist.
HAMERMESH: Sure, the marriage market, which is just as important, looks matter also. Essentially looks are traded like everything else in the match of a husband and wife. And the evidence is very clear on this that guys’ looks just don’t matter very much when they match up. I call it the Aristotle Onassis/Jackie Kennedy effect, a good example of that. Womens’ looks matter a lot. Womens’ looks are paid a higher premium in the marriage market. And yes, they matter a lot. And that’s true, it’s been shown now in studies I did for the U.S. and China. I’ve now seen a study in Germany that does the same thing and makes exactly the same point. So the marriage market certainly. The market for loans, there is a series of three papers written, all within about a year of each other all using unsecured loans off of something called Prosper.com, where they looked at the terms and the defaults of different people based upon their looks. And the worst looking people were less likely to get the loan. They had to pay a higher price. And yet, nonetheless, they were less likely to default. So they were really discriminated against.
DUBNER: Interesting. You know, so this all is… makes sense, I think, to most of us who hear your research. And it’s also kind of depressing and sad, although probably not so surprising that people who are ugly earn less over their lifetime. But I could think of a scenario where if you hadn’t told me this research that I might think the opposite would be true. In other words if I’m not a good looking person and let’s say I’m in high school and college when a lot of people are investing a lot of time, and effort, and resources in social stuff, developing your dating life, etc. etc., that if you’re ugly then maybe you kind of say you know what, instead of investing in all that kind of human social capital stuff I’m going to invest in other stuff, writing, computer programming, studying, becoming a scientist, etc., etc. Do you have any evidence that that kind of, you know, inverse, happens?
HAMERMESH: It’s very hard to get evidence in that kind of investment. I expect it goes on. I like to think in my own case I did some of that. But nonetheless, I mean, a lot of the stuff we’ve done is other things equal, which means that’s held constant. Even without that though just taking people by looks just raw, there still is that negative effect of bad looks positive good looks. So I’m sure some of this goes on, and to some extent that mitigates the impacts of looks on the labor market and other outcomes, but it’s not sufficient to wipe it out completely.
DUBNER: What can you tell us about the relationship between ugliness and let’s say self-esteem or happiness?
HAMERMESH: They’re two different issues. Self-esteem is a very well defined concept with a series of questions. There’s no question they’re positively related, but they’re nowhere near perfectly correlated, and indeed if you adjust for self-esteem in the equations describing wages or other outcomes, the effect of beauty is still there. It’s hardly attenuated at all. In terms of happiness, this is my most recent and I believe final study of a scientific nature on this, you know, you always think the poor good looking person they must be unhappy. When I was a kid we read the poem “Richard Cory” about this incredibly good looking guy who goes out and kills himself. The richest guy in town. And yet that’s just nonsense. There’s no question we had six different data sets for four different countries looking at the impact of beauty on happiness. And there’s no doubt that the effect is positive. Better looking people are happier all else the same. What is really cool about that study, I really like that paper, is that the mechanisms through which beauty impacts happiness differ between men and women. And this is a crucial point and it solved my problem with this research that I’ve had for the last 20 years. For men, the impact is indirect. They earn more and they’re happier because the beauty makes them earn more. For women, that’s much less important, it’s purely the direct effect of feeling happy because you’re good looking. And that’s why I think women think this is more of a women’s issue because it’s more direct for them than it is for men.
DUBNER: Now, Dan you’ve actually argued for civil rights protection for ugly people. You’ve written that ugliness, I’ll quote you to yourself, “Ugliness could be protected generally in the United States by small extensions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ugly people could be allowed to seek help form the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other agencies in overcoming the effects of discrimination. We could even have affirmative action programs for the ugly.” So, really? This is an argument that you mean to be taken seriously, and if so, where does the argument stand?
HAMERMESH: Okay, do I mean for it to be taken seriously, yes. Am I in favor of those programs, most emphatically not because we only have, especially these days, we only have a certain amount of energy for doing protection, and I don’t view the so-called “looks-challenged” as being as meritorious and deserving of aid as other groups.
DUBNER: What other groups for instance?
HAMERMESH: Racial minorities, women, etc., etc.
DUBNER: Well, let me ask you this, while affirmative action for ugly people might be hard for people to handle, maybe the inverse would be easier, which is a beauty tax, should really good-looking people pay extra tax since their wages are being inflated?
HAMERMESH: That’s been proposed too, and I find that, again, this is funny, I personally find that less onerous, less objectionable than affirmative action for the ugly. But you know, none of these things, in this country, at this time, are going to happen. It’s fun to talk about. I think the main point, the reason I raised this initially, which I’ve been talking about for 15 years is insofar as beauty cannot be easily changed, how is it logically that different from race, or gender. That’s the point. And logically there’s very little difference, it’s where we put our political values.
DUBNER: But when you say beauty can’t be changed, I would think there are a lot of things one can do to make oneself better looking or less ugly. Right? You can have teeth fixed, you can have scars fixed, you can have hair done. You can sleep more and look better. You can get your skin cleaned up, etc., etc., etc. So why is that the same type of issue?
HAMERMESH: Doesn’t help very much. All those things you mentioned, and there have been studies of this, that I did on clothing, and cosmetics, and hair for China for women. There’s a very nice study of plastic surgery for Korea. These things do improve your beauty, but not very much. The only thing that would really do it in my own case is if somebody put me under, completely broke all the bones in my face and rearranged them to make them better. Okay? The movie “Face Off” with John Travolta is the example of that. But that ain’t happening, and I’m not sure anybody wants to even do that because the pain and suffering and also the dollar cost involved in it. So I don’t think it is as changeable as people think.
DUBNER: All right, so finally, just something I’m curious about that we didn’t get to earlier … there are obviously some careers that good-looking people go into because of their looks modeling and acting, for example. What else can you tell us about looks and the professions that people sort into or get sorted into?
HAMERMESH: I think we have some evidence for attorneys that in fact people will self-select into sectors where you have to get clients. For example, we showed that not just lawyers in the private sector were better looking, but those who started in the public sector who were among the better looking public sector lawyers would switch over in their careers into the private sector. And vice versa for bad looking lawyers in the private sector. They’re more likely to switch. So anything that involves customer contact, the more contact with people you have. But the crucial point is every job we do you have contact with people maybe not customers, then employers, if not employers then fellow employees. We deal with people all the time and looks affect our interactions with them.
DUBNER: What are particularly good professions for the ugly?
HAMERMESH: Probably radio. Probably radio.
DUBNER: Thank you so much, Professor Hamermesh.
HAMERMESH: There’s a famous line which I heard when I started this, a beautiful face for radio.
DUBNER: Yeah, I know that line.
[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “El Corazon Negro” (from Instrumental, Action, Soul)]
DUBNER: Let me just say, for the record, if I had to choose all over again between a life of crime and radio, even public radio – yeah, I’d make the same decision. So would these people, for sure …
SIEGEL: Hi this is Robert Siegel, but when I’m shaving in the morning looking at the mirror, I’m just stunned, I see Cary Grant. Apart from the height, the hair, the teeth, the looks, whatever, I think… I see Cary Grant. My wife Jane can attest, I’m stunning, aren’t I?
JANE: Absolutely. Mostly.
Kai RYSSDAL: Hi, it’s Kai Ryssdal. You know, I’m not a bad-looking guy. I’m fine for radio. But you know my wife likes to, sort of, keep my ego in check. So she Googles me every now and then. And a couple of years ago she pulled up this site of this woman, and her blog post said, basically, “I used to be such a huge Kai Ryssdal fan. But then I Googled him, and I saw what he looks like.” Ouch, right?
Brooke GLADSTONE: I’m Brooke Gladstone, co-host and managing editor of “On The Media.” It is true, it’s good for the less attractive, and also for those who don’t have a very good wardrobe. I once did an interview with “Weekend All Things Considered” about Chechnya in a towel, you know, no one’s gonna know. I could wear pajamas every day. But I see myself pretty much on the trajectory, somewhere between the young Liz Taylor and Whoopi Goldberg.
Jad ABUMRAD: This is Jad from “Radiolab,” and look, you wanna know why I work in radio? It’s to protect you… from this face. The BLINDING BEAUTY of this face. I’m just not sure you can handle it. So that’s why I keep it hidden – to do you a favor. And look, you don’t believe me? Call Ryan Gosling. How do you think he got those abs? Why do you think he keeps calling me at all hours of the night for workout tips? Because beautiful faces for radio are sometimes on the radio because they’re just too beautiful! You ever thought about that?
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