Beauty Pays

Daniel S. Hamermesh studied why more attractive people are more successful -- and found evidence that the trend applies in academe.

August 15, 2011

My favorite occupations are university teacher and economist — the occupations I classify myself in. Does beauty affect outcomes in occupations like this, where we practitioners pride ourselves on valuing intellect over appearance? Take university teachers first. Students rating the looks of a group of professors in whose classes they had never been enrolled tended to rate them as being pretty bad-looking on average. The question is whether, within this less-than-pulchritudinous group, the better-looking people are more likely to get ahead.

We can measure the impact of beauty among professors in several ways. The first is the same way that we have measured its impacts in other occupations — by looking at its effects on earnings. A study of more than 400 economics professors in Ontario, Canada, related their salaries to a measure of their "hotness": Whether or not students had assigned them chili peppers on the website Chili peppers are assigned when students think the professor is unusually good-looking, and in the Ontario study were "awarded" to about 10 percent of the professors. After adjusting for numerous other factors that might raise a professor’s salary, including his or her age and publication productivity, the authors found that "hot" professors earned at least 6 percent more per academic year than their otherwise identical less good-looking peers.

Another way is to ask whether students like their courses — whether student evaluations are more positive for better-looking professors. The link between these evaluations and pay or promotion may not be direct or very strong. But university administrators do claim that they reward professors for good teaching, and, rightly or wrongly, most universities use teaching evaluations as the main measure of teaching quality. That better teaching performance generates higher pay is a mantra among university administrators — after all, they need to convince the customers that their opinions about the service-providers matter.

In a study of professors at the University of Texas at Austin, whose looks were rated by students who had never met them, I found that the average student evaluation of the instructor’s success in the course differed sharply by the professors' looks. Going from the 84th to the 16th percentile of professors’ looks in lower-division courses dropped the professor’s rating from 4.4 to 3.6 on a 5 to 1 scale. Since two-thirds of the professors’ ratings were between 3.5 and 4.5, this effect of differences in their looks was very large. The impacts were smaller in upper-level classes, perhaps because those students were more focused on substantive issues than students in introductory classes. This distinction seems similar to the difference in beauty effects between electoral incumbents and challengers.

One might be concerned that better-looking teachers are assigned to courses where students appreciate beauty more — where the student evaluations are more likely to be affected by the good looks of their instructor. Perhaps instructors in art history are better-looking than those in electrical engineering.

In this study, a large number of the classes were sections of the same course, so that for many courses the same kinds of students evaluated professors whose looks differed but who taught the same material. When we account for the particular course being taught, the impacts of looks on evaluations are actually a bit larger. There is no evidence that professors are assigned to courses or choose fields within academe based on their looks.

A similar approach was undertaken using instructional ratings of German university professors. As in the American study, the ratings of beauty by a group of students (who were not in the professors’ classes) were statistically significantly related to the evaluations that the German instructors received from the (different) students in their classes. While the impacts were not as large as in the United States, they were still substantial. No doubt the results would be different in other countries, for other kinds of students, and using different methods. But even in an occupation like college teaching, where we don’t think beauty will be very important, differences in beauty produce impacts on an outcome that is arguably linked to economic rewards.

While we don’t have studies of economists’ beauty and their salaries, we do know something about the impact of their looks on non-monetary outcomes. In a profession that pays well, but that does not offer immensely higher monetary rewards to the top people, the distinctions offered by various honors become important. One such measure of distinction is the esteem in which they are held by their colleagues.

In one study I examined how success in competitive elections to office in the American Economic Association, the leading professional organization in the field, is affected by the economists’ looks. Each voter (member of the association) receives pictures of the candidates along with the ballot so that the candidates’ looks confront you when you cast your vote.

Clearly, in such elections someone will win. So the relevant consideration is not the looks of the candidates alone, but instead how their looks compare to those of other candidates. The results show that moving from the 84th to the 16th percentile of looks lowers a candidate’s chance of winning the election — of obtaining this honor — from 56 percent to 44 percent. This effect adjusts for measures of the candidates’ scholarly productivity, their gender, and other characteristics. It suggests that even the choices of economists, many of whom like to think that they and their fellows are among the most rational people in the world, are affected by looks.

As a university professor and an economist, these studies do not make me happy. On a 5 to 1 scale I obtain teaching evaluations averaging 4.4 in my class of introductory economics, a score that is considered very good for a large course that is required for many freshmen. Yet if my looks were rated 9 on the 10 to 1 scale used in that study, the evidence suggests that my average teaching evaluation would be nearly 5. With that high a score I might be earning a higher salary!


Daniel S. Hamermesh is the Sue Killam Professor in the Foundations of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, and professor of labor economics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. The essay is an excerpt from his new book, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful,© 2011, just published by Princeton University Press, and reprinted here by permission.


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