Friday, August 05, 2005

Maybe we are all ugly.

Those who are intelligent just do a comparatively better job in hiding it. Thus the apparent coexistence of beauty and intelligence.


The Ugliness Problem; Is it irrational to discriminate against the homely? Not entirely.

Dan Seligman
752 words
15 August 2005
Volume 176 Issue 3
(c) 2005 Forbes Inc.

Is it irrational to discriminate against the appearance-challenged? Not entirely.

A sizeable and growing body of literature attests to the fact that homely people confront disadvantages not only in the competition for spouses but in many other areas of life. They have lower incomes than handsome types. When accused of crime, they tend to be dealt with more harshly by judges and juries. One recent report, sorrowfully dwelt upon by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, concludes that less attractive children are discriminated against by their own parents. (Parents are alleged to be less mindful of the safety of unattractive tots.)

In most academic venues and popular media the reaction has been to emphasize the irrational thinking that underlies discrimination against the ugly. The alternative perspective, about to be advanced on this page, questions whether the discrimination really is so irrational.

The classic article about the economic effects of physical appearance, published in the December 1994 American Economic Review, was written by Daniel S. Hamermesh (University of Texas, Austin) and Jeff E. Biddle (Michigan State). It relies on three studies (two American, one Canadian) in which interviewers visited people's homes, asked the occupants a lot of questions about their education, training and job histories, and discreetly (one hopes) rated each man or woman on physical attractiveness. The ratings were on a scale of one (best) to five (worst). In the larger of the two American samples 15% of interviewees were rated "quite plain" or "homely"--categories four and five.

Hamermesh and Biddle found that men in the top two categories enjoyed incomes 5% above those of men rated merely average in appearance. The unfortunate fellows in the two bottom categories were paid 9% below the average. The results for women workers were somewhat similar, except that the workplace effects were smaller. The study controlled for differences in education, experience and several other factors affecting pay but did not measure (and thus did not adjust for) intelligence.

Hamermesh and Biddle agree that it's rational to pay more for good looks in some occupations, e.g., salesperson, but deny that this explains much of the pay gap. They leave you thinking that the basic dynamic is pure employer discrimination--a simple preference for good-looking people. Their paper says nothing about the policy implications of this perspective, but in a recent conversation with Hamermesh I discovered that he is sympathetic to ugly people who want laws to bar the discrimination.

But is it entirely irrational to view ugly people as generally less competent than beautiful people? It is hard to accept that employers in a competitive economy would irrationally persist in paying a premium for beauty--while somehow never noticing that all those lookers were in fact no more intelligent and reliable than the ugly characters being turned down. In the standard economic model of discrimination put forward years ago by Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, employers who discriminate irrationally get punished by the market, i.e., by competitors able to hire competence at lower rates.

The mating practices of human beings offer a reason for thinking beauty and intelligence might come in the same package. The logic of this covariance was explained to me years ago by a Harvard psychologist who had been reading a history of the Rothschild family. His mischievous but astute observation: The family founders, in 18th-century Frankfurt, were supremely ugly, but several generations later, after successive marriages to supremely beautiful women, the men in the family were indistinguishable from movie stars. The Rothschild effect, as you could call it, is well established in sociology research: Men everywhere want to marry beautiful women, and women everywhere want socially dominant (i.e., intelligent) husbands. When competent men marry pretty women, the couple tends to have children above average in both competence and looks. Covariance is everywhere. At the other end of the scale, too, there is a connection between looks and smarts. According to Erdal Tekin, a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, low attractiveness ratings predict lower test scores and a greater likelihood of criminal activity.

Antidiscrimination laws being what they are, it is sometimes difficult for an employer to give intelligence tests or even to ascertain criminal histories. So maybe the managers who subconsciously award a few extra points to the handsome applicants are rational. Or at least not quite as stupid as they look.


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