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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 29 MAY 2012 — It was obvious to anyone in my class at Columbia Law School that merit was the primary means of selection, one result being that plain looks predominated. The average student was so average in appearance, I even suggested (to deaf ears) that, for the next incoming class, ten percent of the slots should be reserved for people chosen primarily for their good looks. Now, decades later, in a book that pays particular attention to the legal profession, have I learned how sound my advice had been.

In Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful (Princeton University Press, 216 pages), the economist Daniel S. Hamermesh explains what anyone living in any of the world’s major cities and most smaller ones already knows anecdotally: people with attractive faces make more money than those with average looks. True, in New York City, you might find an unattractive investment banker or two, but on the whole, you might well conclude that there is a height requirement for men in the field (Under six feet tall? Consider becoming a CPA.), and having the face of a male model will put you on the fast track. The reason you might suspect that to be true, concludes Hamermesh, is that, "the economic approach treats beauty as scarce and tradable." Although he repeatedly acknowledges that his evidence is scarce, the author uses data from studies undertaken around the world to support his position that, if you look better than most, you will likely earn more than most.

As books about economics go, this one is rather fun, even if, like so many works covering the social sciences, it retells the obvious in the form of revelation: "Age is harsher on our perceptions of women’s looks," than it is on those of men, concludes the author, who goes on to note that men are more likely to judge the opposite sex based on looks than will women when sizing up men.

But there are new and useful things, such as the examination of data to debunk the "popular stories…that wardrobe, hairstyle, cosmetics, and surgery" will improve individual economic performance. The payoff, based on a Chinese study, is a mere four cents back on each dollar spent to enhance what nature gave you.

So if looking good helps you earn more money, and you cannot improve your looks in an economically supportable way, what does that say for the meritocracy supported by institutions such as Columbia Law School and for the virtual religion that Americans have made out of the capacity of the individual to better his own fortunes?

Although the author does not offer a philosophical answer, his data at least demonstrate that the problem, although verifiable, is not catastrophic for ambitious people with average or even less than average appearances: "…the bottom 15 percent of women by looks…received 4 percent lower pay than average-looking women. The top one-third of women by looks…received 8 percent more than average-lookers. For men, the comparable figures are a 13 percent penalty and a 4 percent premium." Clearly, it is better to be a hottie, but that is not a point spread that should be fatal to a productive career.

And there can be the opposite problem, designated by the author by the scientific name of the "bimbo effect": the belief that the best-looking women are stupid. Notes the Hamermesh, "In a study of attorneys, the very best-looking female attorneys were less likely to achieve partnership before their fifth year after graduation from law school than average-looking women attorneys." Although I cannot recall any lawyer making partner that quickly regardless of looks, the news can either be seen as offering a bit of Schadenfreude for the average-looking or as further evidence of how socially and economically dysfunctional the legal profession has become.

In addition to lawyers, Hamermesh shows how good looks help everyone from prostitutes (surprised?) to politicians to professors. And hiring the beautiful turns out to be good for business: "The sparse evidence suggests that beauty is privately productive — it raises sales in the companies that hire good-looking workers."

Ultimately, the author takes what might be called a Calvinist approach to the nexus between beauty and money: it is all something in the nature of predestination, but having been born with or without something that is important and unalterable, there is nothing for you to do but to get out there and do the best you can at what you have chosen to do to earn money.  Hamermesh’s concluding sentences could have come from a Protestant pulpit:

In the end, bad looks hurt us and will continue to hurt us.  Looks are fate; but so are many other things. But bad looks are not a crucial disadvantage, not something that our own actions cannot at least partly overcome, and not something whose burden should be so overwhelming as to crush our spirit.

So buck up, all you ordinary-looking people and you others (And you know who you are!) who are even less fortunate. Your chances are not all that bad. They just are not as good as those of better-looking people. Is that obvious? Yes. Is it worth reading Hamermesh’s short book in order to understand what you are up against? Surely so. Would you have felt better about yourself if no one had told you there were good (albeit limited) data to back all what you already suspected was true? Surely so once more, but social scientists, if they do their jobs right and are ever to reach beyond the academic-sounding paraphrase of the obvious, cannot worry about making friends of their readers. It is to Hamermesh’s credit that he doles out the news with compassion and gentle words. Now, try not letting it get to you, and get back to work.

Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful
By Daniel S. Hamermesh

Hardcover: 228 pages
Princeton University Press (August 2011)
ISBN-10: 0691140464
ISBN-13: 978-0691140469

An attorney based in New York, Alan Behr writes on fine art photography for Culturekiosque. He has exhibited his own photography at Leica Gallery in New York, and last wrote on the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as on Cecil Beaton: The New York Years (Skira Rizzoli) for Culturekiosque.

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