Pulchronomics: Reviewing Beauty Pays (from orgtheory.net)

The economics of beauty? Well, that sort of economics definitely interests me more than stories about unemployment rates and tax cuts. (Yes, yes, I know they are important [though often depressing] topics.)  Since I’m married to an economist I feel I can say that sometimes economics can be a bit boring… In any case, it’s rare when our household experiences an overlapping academic interest, so I was particularly eager to read labor economist Daniel Hamermesh’s latest, Beauty Pays (Princeton University Press, 2011).

The book has certainly been getting a lot of press.  (The fact it was featured in both The Economist and People, and that I read both features during my weekly reading, sums up my high- and low-brow periodical reading preferences.)  Beauty Pays has been reviewed and summarized in Time and The Huffington Post as well, and you may have seen the New York Times Op-Ed Hamermesh wrote last month on legal protections for the ugly.  Given these existing reviews I don’t want to summarize the major findings here, instead highlighting some points and questions that I believe will be of particular interest.

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  • Given our chosen academic paths/careers, I was particularly interested when Hamermesh posed the question: Are better looking people better educated? (page 43). The answer is maybe. He finds that if you are smarter the premium for being beautiful is greater. But if you aren’t beautiful the penalty is greater as well.

What does this mean for professors? In examining teacher ratings Hamermesh finds that successful evaluations hinge on profs being more attractive.  More attractive economists also get elected to the presidency of the AEA more easily. Now this doesn’t mean the candidates have to look like Tom Brady. They just have to look better than the Manning brothers, since it’s relative attractiveness that really matters.

Not surprisingly, “On average, better-looking people will choose occupations where their looks pay off, and worse-looking people will shy away from those occupations.” (72)  Does this mean evaluating your own attractiveness in a realistic way should be added to The Grad Skool Rulz?

  • While the book is full of many interesting findings, I did find myself wondering why certain topics weren’t discussed in more depth. For instance, while he discusses professions where looks would seem to matter quite a bit (like prostitution and acting), there was no serious mention of modeling (which seems particularly glaring given the recent publication of economic sociologist Ashley Mears’ Pricing Beauty).  I was similarly surprised to see beauty pageants ignored. The only mention of beauty pageants was a strange one—a reference to an online beauty contest for nuns.

One of the more interesting findings is that beauty matters just as much for men as for women, at least when it comes to labor market outcomes. I think the emphasis on presenting data for both men and women obscured opportunities for more thought-provoking analyses.  For instance, Hamermesh points out that more attractive women are more likely to be involved in the labor market than more unattractive women, who stay at home.  However, don’t many of the very best looking women opt out of the labor market by marrying extremely well? He does discuss the pay-off to women for marrying more attractive husbands (who also have more education, of course), but I would guess attractive women who marry well and leave the labor market are significantly more attractive than women who leverage their good looks for better-paying jobs.

  • Finally, I would have liked to have seen Hamermesh discuss how good some of the studies he references really are. While his pulchronimics work has appeared in some of the top economics journals, many of the studies conducted by others that he discusses didn’t land in such lofty publications.  How much should we believe those studies? Just the findings are presented in the text; he could have used the notes to satisfy the curiosity of his more academic readers to evaluate the way the studies were conducted and point out some of the more and less compelling aspects of that research.

Additionally many of the data are dated, coming from the 1970s. In that case, would we expect there to have been an increase, or a decrease, in earnings due to looks since the 70s? I think we should expect an increase given the rise of celebrity culture and technological changes.  In addition to a 24/7 celebrity culture on television, there has also been the rise of the Internet. Even for non-celebrities that has led to a comeback of the portrait, focusing only on the face, for example (not just for Facebook, but for other forms of social media and websites). So beauty effects may be even larger today—a potentially sobering finding.

The study of beauty is more important than ever, especially given that higher rates of unemployment “gives employers more latitude to discriminate” (50). Hopefully other social scientists will take a cue from Daniel Hamermesh and continue studying beauty and appearance (not just facial beauty/physiognomy, but also height and weight) in a serious way to think about how beauty impacts the labor market, and beyond.

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