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Beauty really does pay

Tess Vigeland Sep 30, 2011
According to a study, these models will probably earn $230,000 more over her lifetime than those in the bottom seventh of looks. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Shelf Life

Beauty really does pay

Tess Vigeland Sep 30, 2011
According to a study, these models will probably earn $230,000 more over her lifetime than those in the bottom seventh of looks. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Tess Vigeland: Take a look in the mirror, would ya? Now based on what you see, do you think you’re paid better or less than other people? Fact is folks, the bombshell beauties and handsome devils among us have an inherent advantage when it comes to money. And we are not just talking salary.

Daniel Hamermesh has a new book out called “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful.” He teaches economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Daniel Hamermesh: Thanks for having me.

Vigeland: Now I must tell you, I paid a lot of attention to what I am wearing for this interview. So let me describe it for you: I’ve got on a strapless, black, long ball gown, three-inch heels, my hair swept into an updo and I’ve got some fun stuff dangling from my ears.

Hamermesh: Well you know, I think that’s wonderful and my guess it’s quite sexy looking. But wearing all these things, all the earrings, all the high heels… There is a lot of evidence that it really doesn’t enhance your beauty as others perceive it very much.

Vigeland: OK, well I’ve actually got jeans and a red sweater and some red flats.

Hamermesh: That’s not gonna hurt you either.

Vigeland: Well, let’s start with something in your book that may shock some folks: People that are perceived to be better looking earn much more than those with below average looks. Of course, this is not the shocking part. What is is how much more. Can you say what that is?

Hamermesh: Well, there’ve been a lot of studies on this, not just for the U.S., but for a number of foreign countries. And of course like any study, they vary. But one study, which I was responsible for, says that among Americans the top third of lookers will earn probably $230,000 more over their lifetimes than those in the bottom seventh of looks.

Vigeland: That’s just so not fair.

Hamermesh: I agree. It’s not fair.

Vigeland: This all leads me to a term that you’ve termed, which is “pulchrinomics,” the economics of beauty. Define that for us.

Hamermesh: Just the notion that beauty is scarce, like air in a scuba tank or like diamonds. And because it’s scarce, therefore it becomes economics. Economics is about scarcity. So my purpose in the book “Beauty Pays” is simply to look at all those areas where this scarcity plays itself out. And jobs and pay are just one of them.

Vigeland: You talk about how better-looking people get better deals on mortgages, better-looking professors — right, in your neck of the woods — get better ratings from their students. How does that make you feel every time you start a new school year? ‘Course, I haven’t seen you. Perhaps it’s not a problem at all!

Hamermesh: No, it is. You don’t wanna do that, you don’t wanna see me. Actually, I put myself on a five-to-one scale, right in the middle. And I tell friends I get very good ratings from my students anyway. But if I were a five, really good looking, I’d get the best ratings in the whole university! So yeah, I’m not happy about it either. I’m not happy in terms of borrowing not from mortgages so much for unsecured loans that the better-looking people get better deals. It’s unfair. I would call it discrimination, rather than somehow that looks are productive. But that’s the way it is.

Vigeland: In this country, we really make a point, particularly in the legal system, to offer all kinds of protections in an effort to level the playing field on everything from gender to race to religion. What do you do with looks?

Hamermesh: I see no reason logically why you shouldn’t do the same protection with the truly, really bad-looking, the bottom 1 or 2 percent, that we do for the disabled. It’s relatively non-changeable, it’s not something that’s not easily remedied. The losses are substantial.

So on logical grounds, I just don’t see much of an argument against it. The argument it is political. We have in this country so few resources to offer these protections that I worry about expanding rights to another group, because I’m afraid that’ll take away from the protections we now offer to certain groups that I care more about personally. But you may think protecting the bad-looking is the most important protection we can offer, and that’s a fine political opinion.

Vigeland: So, for those of us who are not Heidi Klum or Brad Pitt, what are we supposed to do about this, if anything? What do we do with this information?

Hamermesh: I think what we do is suck it up.

Vigeland laughs

Hamermesh: In the sense that you… No seriously! You can’t do anything much about it, so try not to worry about it and try to take advantage of all the things that you do have — one’s intelligence, one’s good humor, personality. All those things are at least as important in affecting how we do in the job market, other markets too. The other point is just to think about there’s so many things that affect how well we do, and this is only one of them. And that’s important for people who might be looks-challenged to understand and to know.

Vigeland: Daniel Hamermesh is an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “Beauty Pays.” Sir, it’s been, I suppose, a beautiful experience talking with you. Thank you so much.

Hamermesh: It has been for me. Thank you too.

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