Thursday, September 15, 2011

You're beautiful, no matter what they say

Is being beautiful good or bad? The question is important, because it will help us know whether Greg Mankiw will write an editorial on whether we should tax them(I am a fervent advocate of his proposed tax on height)

I don't have an answer to the question, but there are several things to think about. First, Hamermesh and Abrevaya had a working paper at NBER last month arguing that beautiful paper are happier. Should we accuse them of Captain Obviousness? It's not clear. As they mentioned, there are two ways beauty could affect happiness: indirectly through "market-related" outcomes, and directly, because beauty is awesome. They find that indirect channels are more important:

Among both men and women at least half of the increase in satisfaction/happiness generated by beauty is indirect, resulting because better-looking people achieve more desirable outcomes in the labor market (higher earnings) and the marriage market (higher-income spouses). That relatively more of the impact among women is direct, not mediated through the effects of beauty on market outcomes, might help to explain gender differences in people’s attitudes about their own looks.
Interstingly, there are a lot of discussion on whether beauty has a positive impact on "market-related outcomes.". PsyBlog lists 5 benefits and 5 problems with being hot. For instance, the Halo effect means that attractive people are seen as better in various unrelated characteristics. Beautiful people are paid more. Hot athletes are paid more(" a “good-looking” quarterback like Kerry Collins or Charlie Frye earned approximately $300,000 more per year than his stats and other pay factors would predict.") Apparently, through other characteristics, attractive people are more persuasive. Men are more ready to forgive attractive women after an apology. Hamermesh(again) finds that beauty improves earnings in China but that investing in beauty is extremely costly(not only because it has decreasing returns to scale), and so advocates for protection of less beautiful people

However, being too pretty has negative impacts. Mostly, it is related to a couple of things:

  • People don't like you because you're too hot: attractive people have problems in job interviews when the interviewer is of the same sex(apparently mostly a woman problem). Also, you scare people. A friend of mine told me of a cameraman on a movie set asking Natalie Portman out, and she said yes because nobody dared asking her out. Unconsciously, hot people are considered less suitable for long-term relationships. Women are less ready to forgive attractive women after an apology
  • People think you are less competent: basically, if you see two identical persons only differing in how attractive they are, you discount the quality of the pretty one on the criteria that you(consciously or unconsciouly, opposing the halo effect) think are positively affected by beauty(or this is what Bayes tells you). Attractive women are discriminated against in masculine jobs, again, consciously or unconsciously

Finally, an interesting dynamic was underlined in a recent OkTrends blog post, which might underline a last problem with being objectively hot. It is summed up in this picture:


Girls get more private messages on OkCupid when there's debate on whether they're attractive, one possible reason being that guys think they have more chances(competition is less fierce).

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