Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From the Archive -- Why Beauty Matters (the third time)

Here's some additional material on the topic of discussed in Metrics today.

Why Beauty Matters

In class yesterday, we discussed that your appearance is an important part of your social capital. For many years, economists have known that more attractive people earn more money. Steven Landsburg summarizes several of the key findings in this slate column.

Here's the highlight:
In their published research, Professors Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle
estimate that if you're perceived as beautiful, you probably earn about 5
percent more than your ordinary-looking counterparts. As beauty is rewarded, so
ugliness is penalized. Ugly women earn about 5 percent less than other women,
and ugly men earn about 10 percent less than other men. That's right; the market
punishes men more than women for being unattractive. Moreover, men's looks haunt
them at every stage of their careers: Better-looking men get more job offers,
higher starting salaries, and better raises. For women, good looks will get you
better raises but usually not better job offers or starting salaries. (A note on
Hamermesh and Biddle's methodology: Beauty was assessed by panels of people who
judged photographs of the study's subjects.)

But why is beauty rewarded? Do employers "pay" because they just like to have pretty people around? Do employer's know that customers prefer to work with pretty people? Are pretty people more productive? Or do employers (and the pretty people themselves) just think that they are?

Spiffy research by Harvard's Markus Mobius and Wesleyen's Tonya Rosenblat addresses these questions using an experimental labor market. Berkeley professor Hal Varian conveniently summarized this paper in yesterday's NYTimes:
Armed with the data from these experiments and surveys, the economists found
several interesting results. It turned out that beautiful people were no better
than ordinary people in solving mazes. But despite having the same productivity
as others in this task, beautiful people were a lot more confident about their
own abilities. Being good looking seems to be strongly associated with
self-confidence, a trait that is apparently attractive to employers. When
employers evaluated employees only on the basis of resumes, physical appearance
had no impact on their estimates, as one would expect. But all of the other
treatments showed higher productivity estimates for beautiful people, with the
face-to-face interviews yielding the largest numbers. Interestingly, employers
thought beautiful people were more productive even when their only interaction
was via a telephone interview. It appears that the confidence that beautiful
people have in themselves comes across over the phone as well as in person. But
even when the experimenters controlled for self-confidence, they found that
employers overestimated the productivity of beautiful people. The economists
estimated that about 15 to 20 percent of the beauty premium is a result of the
self-confidence effect, while oral and visual communication each contribute
about 40 percent. It seems that good-looking people are good communicators as
well, and their oral communication skills contribute about as much to employers'
perceptions as their looks. As the researchers put it, "Employers (wrongly)
expect good-looking workers to perform better than their less-attractive
counterparts under both visual and oral interaction, even after controlling for
individual worker characteristics and worker confidence."

Mobius and Rosenblat’s research seems to indicate that there is a possible correlation between beauty and employment because beautiful people believe they are better. Holding all else equal, beautiful people seem to have developed more self-confidence than "normal" people. That suggests the self-confidence is a function of their beauty. It seems plausible that their superior oral communication skills could also be a function of this increased self-confidence (again, from their beauty). Since they are more confident about themselves, they could have fewer problems presenting themselves and speaking persuasively. It seems interesting that 60% of beautiful people’s advantage is not the beauty itself, but could rather be how people’s treatment of them has inflated their egos.
Since beautiful people are not better qualified that the average person, the major component seems to be confidence. Since beautiful people are praised constantly and have an easier time getting what they want, they feel more confident than those who are not as beautiful. It makes sense that employers tend to hire people are considered beautiful because of the higher confidence factor.
Since beautiful workers spend time and effort on their appearance, the employer might perceive them as more productive if they believe the worked will dedicate the same time and effort to their work task. Also, with beautiful people being rated as more productive after face-to-face interviews, I wonder if being better able to sell oneself if part of the confidence that stems from being beautiful. That a person who is aware of and care about the way they look, are also able to sell themselves during an interview, whether it's face-to-face or over the phone.
I'm curious how the panel judged beauty. It said they judged photos of the people, but were the photo just of their heads or was sense of style a factor as well?
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