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Forget the Beauty Premium: This Study Says Ugly People Earn the Most

Topics: Data & Research

“Attractive people earn more, and very attractive people earn the most.” We’ve heard this theory for so long than most of us probably take it as a given. But a recent study suggests that when it comes to high earnings, very ugly people have an advantage.

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Researchers Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Mary Still of the University of Massachusetts-Boston conducted the study, which was published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, and which examined data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). The survey followed a cohort of 15,000 subjects who were in grades 7 to 12 in 1994, interviewing them at intervals over the next 20-plus years to determine their physical and emotional well-being.

“The Add Health interviewers rated participants’ physical attractiveness at every interview stage using the same five-point scale, where 1 means the participant is ‘very unattractive’ and 5 equals ‘very attractive,’” writes Melanie Radzicki McManus at How Stuff Works. McManus adds that the researchers wrote: “Ratings of physical attractiveness by human judges are known to be highly correlated with measures of bilateral facial symmetry by a computer program and are intersubjectively stable.”

The surprising findings: those rated “very unattractive” always earned more than those who were rated merely “unattractive.” They sometimes earned more than attractive and average-looking colleagues as well.

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How Previous Researchers Might Have Misunderstood the Value of Looks

The researchers attribute the “beauty premium” and “ugliness penalty” found in previous studies to two factors:

  1. Combining the “very unattractive” and “unattractive” workers into the same group, thereby missing the “very unattractive” premium.
  2. Failing to control for health, intelligence, and “Big Five” personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness), all of which may influence pay.

“Physically more attractive workers may earn more, not necessarily because they are more beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent, and have better personality traits conducive to higher earnings, such as being more Conscientious, more Extraverted, and less Neurotic,” Kanazawa tells Science Daily.

As for why very unattractive people would enjoy a salary premium, that’s less clear. The study authors say that very unattractive participants also had higher levels of education than those in other groups. But, more research would be required to determine if this is the true explanation for the difference in pay.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think attractiveness (or lack thereof) impacts pay? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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