The ‘ugliness Penalty’ Doesn’t Apply to People’s Paychecks—but Elite Fitness Does


Economists have long linked attractiveness with an ability to influence status, noting the presence of a “beauty premium” and “ugliness penalty,” according to researchers. And when it comes to the hierarchy of appealing characteristics, beauty is basically the end-all-be-all.

Or is it?

When it comes to earnings, the theory that beautiful people find success more often tends to fall short, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Massachusetts and the London School of Economics.

As it turns out, there’s really no evidence that beauty translates to better salaries, according to the study, which was published in Springer’s Journal of Business and Psychology.

That’s not a typo. In fact, the researchers found that other core attributes—like health, intelligence, and better scores on the Big Five personality traits (more extraversion, more conscientious, and less neuroticism)—are the most influential factors in determining a person’s salary. In fact, “very unattractive” men and women almost always earn significantly more than those deemed merely “unattractive,” and often earn more than “attractive” or average-looking people. And while good-looking people often do make a lot of money, the researchers found that it’s more likely because those lookers score high on intelligence, health, and personality.

So much for the “beauty premium.”

For their data, the research team relied on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, which encompasses a nationally representative sample of people in the U.S. The survey is unique in that it tracks survey participants’ physical appearance in great detail, measured looks a five-point scale at four different points in their lives over 13 years.

Why the disparity from previous research? Other studies of the “beauty premium” haven’t really considered how health, intelligence (as opposed to education), and personality factor into the equation. What’s more, researchers previously grouped men and women who are “very unattractive” and “unattractive” together to form a “below-average” category; by separating the two, researchers found that there’s actually an “ugliness premium.” “Thereby they fail to document the ugliness premium enjoyed by the very unattractive workers,” co-author Mary Still said in a press release

Harsh? A little bit. But there’s a slightly more uplifting takeaway.

You don’t need Brad Pitt’s jawline to up your salary. Focus on the other markers of a higher-paid employee: Get your health and fitness sorted (you’re in the right place), be more diligent and dedicated, exude more confidence, and work on being less high-strung and over-anxious in the workplace.

Project these traits in the office and you just might take home a fatter paycheck.

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