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The economics of good looks (economist.com)
137 points by martincmartin on Aug 26, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

I used to be skeptical about those claims that beauty could help you out (in a significant way) professionally, since I had never experienced it myself. I'm not sure how I rank, beauty-wise, but I'm definitely not in the top 1%... in North America (Montreal).

However, things changed when I moved to China. Chinese people tend to like tall, light skin, light hair, light eyes, big eyes guys (i.e.: me). I'm probably in the top 1% in China, if not more (I'm not bragging, ask any decent looking guy who's been there that matches the description). I believe my newly found handsomeness opened me up to multiple opportunities. Here's two examples (among many others).

One time, in Starbucks, a CEO from a Hong Kong private equity firm started talking to me. After some chat, he knew I was the ideal candidate for this big software project he had in mind. Anecdote: He was reckless enough to use my computer to login onto his business email account. Hell, he probably didn't even notice I was running Ubuntu.

Another time, I met a guy in a bar. He started serving me drinks as he noticed I was attracting pretty girls around the table. He told me that he owned multiple consumer electronics stores in China. A few days later, he was calling me to discuss the possibility of me opening up and managing a new store for him in Hong Kong.

I like to think that "knowing I was handsome" gave me a lot of confidence which is what really helped me out. But I'm having a hard time convincing myself...

It's very funny how relative the concept of sex appeal is between different cultures.

One of the key few moments in my life was when an old Chinese woman who was a coworker of mine at the time told me: you are smart, know math, and are good looking; you shouldn't work here; you should work on Wall Street. I rarely before thought of myself a good looking, being thin, pale, light-haired and not conforming to the traditional wide-shoulder, tall-dark-and-handsome masculine ideal we have here in the West. For better or worse, her comment certainly increased my ambition...

a chinese friend of mine said she got an acceptance at MIT, a position at chase manhattan bank, because he is in 1% among americans for being slim and fit only.

There are lots of thin Chinese finance nerds from MIT, what's so unique about that?

You have a plastic that states first class country living rights to any woman that get's you. Living in China for some time you didn't realise the "attractiveness" of that? I tell you something. I saw a 50 year old, objectively ugly, stupid US guy in Hangzhou who most people wouldn't waste a 'hi' on. But Chinese girls were running after him, telling him how attractive he was. You still think you are so handsome because Chinese girls tell you?

I mean, what should they say? "Marry me, because then I can live in Meiguo." (for them it's not a big difference) Also I can't blame them to want to improve their living conditions. Their live really sucks and it seems (not sure, was there just for one year) that life really is harder for women there, then for men. Don't be naive. At least know what really makes you attractive, over there.

I used to think that as well and it's totally true with most Chinese women (especially in poorer areas). However, I live in one of the most expensive city in China (Shenzhen) and I've met many women that were much richer than me, who have absolutely no intention of moving to cold Canada. At 8$/beer, the bars I frequent usually attract an upper class crowd (or women who have someone to pay for them).

Also, your theory doesn't hold in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is richer than where I come from and poorer women have a vast pool of rich men to choose from.

What you said is definitely an important piece to note. But I think the OP's finding is relevant too.

I was born and raised in China, and I get way better reception when talking to women in China than I do in Canada or the States.

Coincidentally, I fit in the category of skinny, light skin and big eyes.

It is true that skinny, light skin and big eyes also have a different value in China. But it still is hard to get sufficient data to support that one of these is a factor for women who meet u. If you look "american", that alone might be enough. Also if you find another country where other values apply. I don't know for sure, but let's take a country in Africa. I guess (but don't know!) that more masculine, strong and dark skinned men are better looking there. The average North American or European guy will still have more success there, then in his home country, because he still has "plastic" and money value, that is a lot higher then for most black man. Even a Chinese man (who sometimes feels treated badly by western girls) will have a lot of success in Africa, beause the Chinese financial and living standards are higher then in many African countries (also don't have any data to prove that "most" really applys). And also in his own country a Chinese male will have better chances with women, because there he works on an equal level, while he really has a disadvantage in Europe and North America.

To make a long story short: I don't think "I get more girls in this country or in that." can be a good model to compare the beauty values of women or bosses, because other factors are more important.

Does it matter really what makes him attractive?

Most of the time it probably doesn't matter. But it can never hurt to know more about the important women in ur life, doesn't it? Also think about the following example: You feel that something between you and your girlfriend is off. So you want to do something to increase her happiness. If she is with you because you are so hot, you might dress better and invite her to some clubs to have fun together. But if she is into you because she thinks you will support her well, showing her your commitment might be way more important. Doing the one or the other both can be good or not. But which might safe your relationship depends on why she is attracted to you.

Not to rain on your parade, but in these cases it's hard to make a convincing separation between your looks per se and the cachet in Chine of having a Westerner working for you.

His point is that he looks stereotypically Western and therefore is considered more attractive than most Chinese natives or Asians generally by Asians and the Chinese themselves. He's making no claims about how attractive he actually is, but that he has first hand knowledge of the difference between being perceived as nothing too special in the looks dept. and being perceived as probably in the top 1% of good looking people in a certain culture.

I can attest to this as well. I lived in Korea for a good while, and let me tell you, it doesn't get any better than being a white blond, blue eyed male or female of any sort (as long as not gay or fat) in SE Asia, and from what I hear, basically every other part as well. We be some sexy, foreign beasts. And I, too, am just an otherwise average looking guy.

The GP's point is how do you know it's the "stereotypically Western looks" and not just the fact he's Western? Unless you claim that all Westerners look attractive to Asians (in which case there's no practical point in separating ethnicity from looks), the question to ask is how non-attractive Westerners are perceived.

You know, it's weird. Some of my Western friends in China would be considered much more handsome than me by Western standards. Yet, Asians seem to consider me more handsome than them. Just like I sometimes consider a Chinese girl to be very pretty and yet, my Chinese friends consider her so-so [1]. The point of my story wasn't to "parade" (that would be silly on HN) but just to communicate my personal experience.

To go back to your point, the Western look definitely helps in China, regardless of beauty. Many businesses want to hire Westerners to project an international image. That being said, I think my luck had more to do with my perceived handsomeness than my Western look. I know, this doesn't sound terribly humble, but like I said, I'm not amazingly handsome by North American standards.

Also, to clarify, I'm not taking a moral/ethic position on the subject, just communicating my personal experience.

[1] http://bbs.chinadaily.com.cn/viewthread.php?tid=707742

If the OP were being asked out on a date, I could say with 99% condfidence it was because of his looks. If he's getting job offers, from presumably (just going with the odds) heterosexual men, then I strongly suspect there are other factors at play besides just how he looks, regardless of the ethnicity of the person perceiving those looks.

You'd be surprised, I think, just how much looking (and being?) stereotypically Western is considered a PR advantage in many Asian countries. There is a practice, for instance, of hiring Western males to attend business meetings not for any reason related to that person's business acumen, but because it looks very good for a company if you've got a white English speaking male in attendance.

I like to think that "knowing I was handsome" gave me a lot of confidence which is what really helped me out. But I'm having a hard time convincing myself...

It's really messed up, not being able to have an objective appreciation of one's looks (even relative to the given culture.

If enough people ask if you're a model, or an actor, or mention to friends how good-looking your are I supposed theta should enough evidence that at least some people think you're good-looking. But being over-familiar with one's looks tends to make one skeptical, plus many cultures train people to not be vain, which often in practice becomes "think poorly of yourself."

Over-familiar is a big "problem" in appreciating beauty, no matter how beautiful a face is, if you look at it every day, it will eventually become about average.

I've found that people I've come to know and like get better looking.

I think you are just being humble. Your blog's profile pic isn't bad. Having said that, the local girls are probably into you for a combination of 3 reasons: 1. you are good looking 2. you are different looking and 3. you may have money

I have felt variously throughout my life both beautiful and homely. As a gay man, I perceive the ubiquitous social pressure to be attractive much more acutely than most heterosexual men. That pressure is not easy to shake off; I can only imagine what women experience.

Case in point: a few years ago, I noticed that my hair wasn't quite as thick and lush as it once was. I panicked, stupidly. Without performing adequate research, I began taking a medication that blocks the hormone DHT. Only later did I learn that this medication can subtly alter cognition by affecting the production of various neuro-steroids. Obviously, the value of my mind vastly outweighs that of my appearance, so I stopped taking the medication knowing that one day, I'd probably lose my hair because of it.

Despite the obviousness of the choice, it was ridiculously difficult to implement. The social imperative to be beautiful is powerful. Yet:

You aren't your hair. Or your face. Or your breasts.

It may very well be that attractive people have it easier than less attractive people. But that's a problem with human nature, not with those not blessed by beauty. Make reasonable steps to improve your appearance, then forget about it. Self confidence, humor, and a compassionate nature will always win the day with people who matter.

Ask yourself: is Steve Jobs as classically attractive as Brad Pitt? Who is more accomplished? Isaac Asimov? Donald Knuth?

>Ask yourself: is Steve Jobs as classically attractive as Brad Pitt? Who is more accomplished? Isaac Asimov? Donald Knuth?

Depends on how you rate accomplishment. Your average female certainly knows one of those people, perhaps two given recent news. But unless they are big into Sci-Fi or computer science, they have no idea who Asimov and Knuth are.

In the evolutionary struggle to breed, Brad Pitt is the winner here, by a long shot.

Pitt: 3 children (Age 47)

Asimov: 2 children

Knuth: 2 children

Jobs: 4 children

In the evolutionary struggle, I'd say all the fame and gorgeous abs haven't created Ramses-style success for Pitt. Academic reputation and billions of dollars do less for you than simply marrying a nice girl who likes babies would.

Yes, I think a lot of this focus on looks is just an exaggerated venting of sexual frustration. When you're not getting any, it can feel like the best thing in the world would be to become a Brad Pitt lookalike so you could have your pick and go out on some huge bacchanalic binge, but there's a reason a guy like Brad doesn't spend much of his time doing that sort of thing--it isn't all that satisfying or fulfilling.

In reality, once you are able to reach a base level of intimacy and satisfaction in one (or multiple) sexual relationship(s), how others perceive your looks in general stops mattering almost completely, and the fortunate truth is that achieving this satisfied state doesn't really require being some sort of Casanova, just moderately socially active, comfortable with yourself, and willing to put yourself out there occasionally. It may be slightly easier to be happy in this aspect of life as a very attractive person, but in the whole scheme of what it takes to be fulfilled, it's a fairly small advantage really.

..and looks stop mattering completely the moment people start speaking instead of looking and deciding weather or not speaking will be interesting.

How you look signals what sorts of conversation are likely to be possible or interesting. e.g. if you really like knitting, go talk to the person wearing the nice custom sweater.

I agree completely.

Yet, while you mention it, I think you do not emphasize enough the importance of chosing how you rate accomplishment. In terms of ability to attract a mate, there is no doubt Brad Pitt wins, by a long shot.

But change the question to who has had the biggest impact on humanity, and I suspect the answer shifts to Knuth. Ask who will have the largest overall impact on culture, and I think the answer becomes Asimov (I expect his fiction will be read long after Pitt's movies fade away and he has inspired a great deal cultural work for second order effects). Ask who has had the largest impact on daily American life in the present, and Jobs is clearly victorious.

It depends entirely on how you define accomplishment.

Compare Donald Knuth vs. Lady Gaga at Google FTCS!



Ideas mean nothing in the grand scheme of humanity. In 200 years we could collapse back into the dark ages. Only surviving descendants do. The "anyone can produce a baby" is a pretty lie told to those who forsake their prime directive (mating and caring for offspring) in order to serve those who do,in order to make them feel better about themselves. Repeating this lie will not make it true.

And how do you know that one baby (which can cumulatively produce millions more) is not a more "positive impact for humanity"?

You can't change genetics, but you can become fitter, leaner, and more muscular, and wear flattering clothes.

Indeed. Living in a third-world country makes it really obvious that while beauty is rooted in nature it can very easily be bought if you have enough money. As you age, the niceness your skin is inversely correlated to solar exposure and manual labor, and positively correlated with money spent in moisturizers and other products. How fit your body is also depends on the money/time spent on a gym and on the quality of the food you eat. Your hair will also look as nice as the money you spend on it (even if you're bald), and even teeth can be fixed if you have enough money at a young age. Finally, beauty is socially defined, and over time the standards will shift to mirror other aspects of society (in Brazil, for example, white people are generally better off, so all standards of beauty encourage "looking white", by hair straightening, makeup, etc. In places where rich people don't do manual work and stay indoors all day being pale is considered pretty, while in places where rich people can afford to go to the beach looking tan is considered better).

In addition, a considerable component of beauty depends on your state of mind and who you are as a person, i.e. how sensitive, how alert, how calm, how happy you are. This effects your eyes, the way you smile, the way you hold yourself and the way you move.

And thus appearance is influenced by your worldview, moral choices, etc.

Some call it 'charisma', which sort of implies that it is a lottery win, like having good genes, but it really isn't.

Great point. Some of the most attractive people alive aren't beautiful. See the entire genre of Rock & Roll for sources.

"A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely."

— Roald Dahl (in The Twits)

I feel like that's a cruel thing to say. "You're supposed to put your guard down when you're ugly".

No. "You're supposed to not worry so much." People are drawn to people that are happy. It's a very attractive trait.

Or worse - reverse it and you have if I think you're ugly, you can't have good thoughts.

I wouldn't go that far.

But it is true (in my experience) that good looking people are a bit more self-absorbed than normal.

"What is good looking, but looking good? Be good, be womanly, be gentle,—generous in your sympathies, heedful of the well-being of all around you; and, my word for it, you will not lack kind words of admiration." -- John Greenleaf Whittier

that's what ugly people say :D

Lookism is a little silly. Unlike race and gender, looks are something we actively work on. I have a lot of gorgeous women in my life (even if I never compliment them), and I know they take hours each day to make sure they look great. They spend effort in everyting from learning to put on makeup to accent their appearance, to using moisturizers, masks, cleansers, eye cream, lip gloss, to keeping a consistent workout schedules. Really, looks and knowledge are really developed in similar ways. They're not things we can't change.

We're allowed to judge people on intellectual merit as well as physical fitness, so why not on looks? You can work as hard as you want in an academic area or in a sport, and chances are you'll still never be in the top 1%. Likewise, your looks are also rooted in your genetic luck.

Other than stigma, I really see very little difference between academic merit, physical merit, and looks.

I see this as a skill that can be improved – just like anything else. Even if you don't consider yourself the most attractive person, having a strong self worth and putting an effort into your appearance can go a long ways. There are enough sites/books/friends out there to help you figure out what is a good look for you. I have constantly harped on friends that it is amazing how much dressing better can do for your career. Control the things you can control and what you wear is certainly something you can.

Sure sucks for those without good looks, but I see it as more gas for the fire to make yourself overcome that disadvantage.

Absolutely. Either accept your lot in life or try to overcome it. I can't see a good way of regulating lookism. Hey, Abercrombie & Fitch have been able to get away with it for years (http://jezebel.com/5479980/american-beauty-a-brief-history-o...).

Well, if we can't get away from lookism, we need to have ways to redistribute the effects, right? We do it with smarts (if we assume that, in the aggregate, smart people make more money), so why not with good looks? So, attractive people need to sleep with the uglies, and the more attractive they are, the more they should do it. We'll add a few fields to tax forms where you enter your hotornot.com score, and a few months later if you're ugly you get sex coupons to spend and beautiful people get an assigned amount of sex coupons to collect.

(I usually use this argument to argue against wealth redistribution and progressive taxing, but I guess it works the other way around too ;) )

Well progressive taxation already redistributes money whether it's from aggregate advants of smarts or looks. You're talking of non-economic advantages, which are not redistributed for smarts either

Oh you're right, this article actually disproves my point. Doh.

I think that is a part of the imbalance, those that have good looks tend to be more confident and thus are more likely to succeed.

Looking good takes a certain amount of discipline. You have to eat right and exercise and take time to groom yourself. I wonder how much of the increase in success for attractive people is caused directly by their looks, ie greater self-esteem and unfair treatment. How much of the increase is not caused by good looks but correlates with good looks due to a deeper cause such as greater self-discipline?

There's a positive feedback loop involved as well. Beautiful people are more likely to have others want to befriend them. This social practice makes them more sociable. Which makes more people want to befriend them.

I don't know if anyone here has lost a significant amount of weight (50+ pounds) while they were still young, but they will confirm this effect. In fact, this effect is often so strong, that people who have lost weight often become very skeptical of people's motivations. People who had never noticed them are now suddenly nice and friendly. This starts to make you wonder if the interest of other people in you, is purely based on your looks or who you really are.

If your store isn't bringing in enough customers you can upgrade the facade to bring in more traffic, but it's still up to you to make the sale once they walk inside.

> It limits a person’s right to equal opportunity, reinforces the subordination of groups where unappealing characteristics, including obesity, are concentrated (ie, the poor, some ethnic minorities)

That doesn't seem to be true:

> Contrary to conventional wisdom, … the poor have never had a statistically significant higher prevalence of overweight status at any time in the last 35 years. Despite this empirical evidence, the view that the poor are less healthy in terms of excess accumulation of fat persists.


Somewhat interesting that most of these comments are about the accuracy of the observations that looks have a beneficial impact in the stated areas. Is that really up for debate with the amount of verification already done on this subject?

I think a far more interesting question is how to exploit this global and obviously negative fact.

1) Don't play the game, you don't want to bother being stuck in a peer group where this is standard operating procedure. The fact that it is so widespread is actually a bonus here because you can easily cut out association with a huge swathe of humanity purely because they are simple beasts hung up on their evolutionary drives.

2) Know that generally, others not playing the game are likely to be focused on other areas also. Take their lack of focus on their appearance as an indicator that this might be the case, try to see where they are actually focusing their attention.

3) If your discard evolutionary metrics for lifestyle, largely you get to make them for yourselves. This is an enormously freeing experience in and of itself and I can't recommend it highly enough. If there's one thing life has taught me it is that you do not have to accept the measures you are constantly barraged with as the only valid ones, and in fact if you don't, you will have less market competition in the areas which you end up focusing purely because humans generally don't do that.

I love the comments that argue that since a preference for attractive (i.e., symmetrical) faces is hard-wired, we shouldn't try to legislate against it. From what I remember of ev psych, suspicion of individuals who are not of our group/tribe is also hard-wired - I wonder if those same commenters would abolish legal protection based on race.

That said, as a woman in tech, the concept of "erotic capital" resonates with me. I'm wildly ambivalent about it, though - the risk seems to outweigh any potential reward.

Yet women with "exotic good looks" are valued highly. Women NOT of your tribe are more desirable than those within it.

>I love the comments that argue that since a preference for attractive (i.e., symmetrical) faces is hard-wired, we shouldn't try to legislate against it

Well, it is also hard to quantify. How are you going to prove to a jury that you are plain and thus got turned down?

You can't in a single case, but over time and many cases, pattern of discrimination can be suggest via statistical methods. This is how covert racial discrimination cases are tried.

People pick you based on how they feel about you. Sometimes they pick you because you're nice, or funny. And sometimes just looking at you makes them feel good.

"Yet because ugliness is harder to define than race or sex, some argue that anti-discrimination laws are impossible to maintain." Anybody else find the premise to that statement a bit short-sighted? I just read an interesting book called "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell, where he cites scientific studies that prove many of our prejudices occur not at the conscious level, but rather unconsciously. In other words, even if you personally do not consider yourself a racist, a sexist, or a looks-ist (need a real word for that last one), you can easily be swayed by such factors -- even if you are aware that you could be influenced.

To assume it all happens consciously, and to consider legislation as the primary way of preventing discrimination, is a bit short-sighted in my opinion. Being aware of this concept is a first step, but efforts should be made to control for unconscious bias as well. Companies have an incentive to do this as they may be passing up better qualified candidates. Perhaps developing a way to implement blind performance reviews or conducting non-soft skills, technical interviews that test a person's cognitive ability behind a screen could be one way to curb the trend.

You may be interested in the Implicit Association Test: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/

It comes with a disclaimer:

"Important disclaimer: In reporting to you results of any IAT that you take, we will mention possible interpretations that have a basis in research [...] If you are unprepared to encounter interpretations that you might find objectionable, please do not proceed further. [...]

I am aware of the possibility of encountering interpretations of my IAT performance with which I may not agree. Knowing this, I wish to proceed. [Click]"

Yes, this test is actually referenced throughout "Blink" -- Really interesting when you look at the results.

Sex may be easy (well, in most cases) easy to define but race may be much very hard to define "objectively", e.g. see the novel/movie The Human Stain.

Money can go a long way in mitigating lack of beauty (At least in men).

It's true for women also, but by using the money for plastic surgery and skin care, etc. They do some pretty awful yet impressive things nowadays to reshape body structures, things like disconnecting/removing calf muscles for a slimmer calf, breaking and resetting the jaw for a narrower face, and all different kinds of lasers to get rid of acne and scars and wrinkles.

For men, social status is much more important than either looks or money.

And often money walks hand in hand with social status. And concerning attractiveness to women, that high correlation and what their women can buy from their money often is enough "prove".

Current studies show a positive correlation between IQ and looks. If that is true, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to think the same factors that result in good looks also result in a well developed brain, attempts to normalize pay regardless of looks are misguided.

The correlation between IQ and looks is weak. The correlation between looks and salary? Hm...

I bet the beauty effect remains after controlling for IQ (controls like education are already doing that to a great degree because they correlate much more strongly with IQ than beauty).

How well does IQ correlate with intelligence?

Considering that it is designed to measure intelligence in a way that can be objectively defined, I'd say it correlates pretty good. Can you think of many intelligent people with a low IQ or unintelligent people with a high IQ?

Intelligence is not defined precisely enough to speak of correlation here. Maybe a better question to consider is: is it fair that salary is correlated with IQ?

If anyone could answer this question with confidence, it'd be 100%.

Is there any idea to know if I'm a nice guy or not? I never had a girl friend, or talked to a girl for more than 10 minutes alone. I completely ignore if I look good or I'm bad. Any measures or software to estimate that?

Does anyone else think that this could be one more thing holding back telecommuting?

Lately I have been trying to spot more of the soft factors that keep people coming into offices.

Love the affiliate links to the referenced books at the top of the article.

I call bullshit on this. If this had any truth to it, you'd think the entire C-level in every corporation would be overrun with "beautiful" people.

I think someone saw Gattaca and made a bet with a colleage to see if they could get something published based on the premise.

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