Is life really better for beautiful people?
In many ways, yes. For one thing, good-looking people are more happy with their lives.
Fifty-five percent of the people in the top one-third of looks stated that they were very satisfied or satisfied with their lives; 53 percent of people in the middle half of looks said the same thing; but only 45 percent of the worst-looking one-sixth of the population said they were satisfied.
They also make more money.
Using these large random samples of women and men, we can compare their earnings to the ratings of their looks. Compared to the average group (people rated as 3 on the 5 to 1 scale), below-average looking women (rated 2 or 1 on the scale) earn 3 percent less, while below-average looking men earn 22 percent less. Above-average looking women (rated 4 or 5 on the scale) earn 4 percent more than the average-looking, while above- average looking men earn 3 percent more. There is a premium for good looks, a penalty for bad looks. Except for the penalty for the 11 percent of men whose looks are rated as below-average, these differences in earnings are not large; but they are in the directions that you would expect.
For a forty-year-old man the impact of good looks on earnings is about the same as that of an additional five years of work experience, and also about the same as that of working in a unionized workplace. The effects of beauty on earnings are not immense, but they are certainly substantial. When viewed in the context of an entire working life, they seem even larger. In 2010, the average worker earned about $20 per hour. Averaging male and female workers, someone employed 2,000 hours per year over a work life of forty years would earn $1.60 million. But with below-average looks the worker would earn only $1.46 million, while with above- average looks, lifetime earnings would be $1.69 million. A 3 or 4 percent premium for good-looking workers doesn’t seem that big; but placed into a lifelong framework, $230,000 extra earnings for being good-looking instead of bad-looking no longer seems small. Comparing the bad-looking to the average-looking worker the effect is smaller—“only” $140,000 over a lifetime—but still quite large. Comparing the average-looking to the above-average looking worker the effect is smaller still—“only” $90,000 over a lifetime—but still substantial.
Interestingly, the premium for beauty is greater if you are smarter, as is the penalty for being unattractive.
Surprisingly, the premium isn’t due to looks-based favoritism — it’s due to self-confidence.
Better looking people are more confident and this translates into higher earnings.
The main conclusion of the study was that the majority of the effect of beauty was not due to preference-based discrimination. Instead, much of the impact of beauty was through the channel of greater self-confidence on the workers’ part and better verbal skills. The translation of these measures to the real-world analog of labor productivity may not be perfect; but the study does suggest that employers’ treatment of bad-looking workers is not entirely unproductive socially.
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