Beauty and brains

It is well known that beautiful people earn more, which goes some way to explaining Matt Nolan’s success in his stage career. What is apparently more difficult to understand is why they earn more. A paper tries to split out two effects: productivity and discrimination. For instance,

…lecturers who are viewed as better looking receive higher instructional ratings by their students. Then, ceteris paribus, these higher ratings translate into higher salaries, because US university administrators pay attention also to teaching quality in setting salaries. However, the question remains on whether students are simply discriminating against ugly professors by reacting to an irrelevant characteristic, or if they do really learn less from them.

The researchers find that the additional wages of lecturers are due to productivity gains rather than discrimination but what confuses me is the difference between the two! The wording implies that productivity gains are independent of discrimination when, really, it is just a different form. What the authors refer to as ‘discrimination’ is Becker’s model of tastes for good looks. That would involve the employer paying an employee more because they, perhaps erroneously, believe that good looking people are better employees.

What the authors refer to as ‘increased productivity’ is the additional payment to lecturers for better educating students. But let us ask WHY the students achieve better outcomes with more beautiful lecturers. It is likely to be because they pay more attention to, and have more trust in, beautiful people. That causes them to learn more effectively when being taught by good looking lecturers. Is the students’ belief any more rational than an employer’s belief that beautiful people are more skilled? Of course not: the ‘productivity’ effect described here is merely discrimination by the consumer, rather than discrimination by the employer. The results in the paper show that discrimination by employers in this case is an indirect effect caused by consumer discrimination on the basis of looks.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the authors are in any way incorrect to separate the two effects but the terminology they use is somewhat misleading. This is not evidence that beautiful people are more skilled than the rest of the population: it is evidence that there are many ways in which beautiful people benefit from their good looks. Just because the interviewer can see past Matt’s smouldering good looks doesn’t mean he won’t end up earning more than the rest of us 😉

[NB. The ‘Matt Nolan’ referred to in this blog post is not the New Zealand economist of the same name. Any confusion is entirely intentional.]

9 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    I’m not sure I agree.

    For one, this paper looks at relationship between students grades and attractiveness.

    The other paper they quote (Hamermesh and Parker (H&P, 2005)) which covers what you are saying may have two reasons for stating what it states:

    1) Beautiful people are better at the given job (lecturing) on average,
    2) Beauty has an impact on output directly (you turn up to watch a hot lecturer, and you just happen to learn more 😉 )

    Given that these exist beyond pure “taste discrimination” and that both of these may lead to some sort of unfair “signalling” that isn’t based upon observed ability, it is important to separate factors – which is why this paper is trying to understand if beautiful people get better grades (empirical fact) because they are smarter.

  2. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    @Matt Nolan
    I haven’t seen evidence to support (1) but the ‘productivity’ label would be appropriate for that effect, if it existed. (2) is taste discrimination by consumers, as I discussed. In this case it is consumers of education who have a taste for sexy lecturers. The increased grades are just an externality of the taste preference which, while it may count as productivity from the university’s point of view, is still a consequence of discrimination.

    I don’t have a problem with the paper separating the two effects, I just think it’s misleading to suggest that the ‘productivity’ effect is not also a result of discrimination on the basis of looks.

  3. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    “(2) is taste discrimination by consumers, as I discussed. In this case it is consumers of education who have a taste for sexy lecturers”

    Consumer discrimination is in the same sense that I discriminate against eating spinach – because I don’t have a preference for it, and I am the consumer of the resource, right?

    There is an element of that in (2) but as you state there is also a postive externality associated with it, namely that grades (output) is higher as a direct result of discrimination. It is still “efficient” to discriminate in this case. Whether it is morally right is another question, another layer of analysis – but I still feel that it is relevant.

    I don’t think we particularily disagree on this second point though, it is likely a matter of semantics – so I’ll concede it for sure on my basis. However, I don’t have access to the paper that discusses it – so I can’t state whether the paper that discussed the lecturer example framed the terms fairly or not.

  4. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    “I haven’t seen evidence to support (1) but the ‘productivity’ label would be appropriate for that effect, if it existed.”

    This is what the paper you linked to was about right? It was about going through students and trying to identify a) if hotter students did better on tests and then 2) whether this was the result of discrimination or inherent ability.

    The quote you took out was from the justification for looking at the issue, where they were mentioning another paper.

  5. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Ooops, sorry, I meant to link to the Hamermesh paper, not the Cipriani paper. I just followed the link and realised my mistake. Fixed now 🙂

    I’m not convinced that Cipriani’s paper show’s evidence that beautiful people are genetically more intelligent, if that’s what you’re suggesting. Even they only go so far as to say that it supports theoretical research on the benefits for self-esteem, socialisation etc of being tall and good looking. So, if by ‘smarter’ you mean ‘having greater cognitive ability’ then I agree; if you mean genetically more intelligent then I don’t think it goes that far. I don’t know enough about genetic selection to have any opinion on that topic so if a biologist wants to enlighten us then that would be great!

  6. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Sweet. I agree regarding the tenuous nature of evidence that they are genetically more intelligent – and it is one of those things where, even if it did exist, the fact that people use it as a signal given that the “distribution” for that type of person is better still leads to feedback loops which lead to discrimination on this basis being excessive. Which troubles me.

    Evolutionary psychologists strongly believe in these types of differences, but then they say things like this:

    And you can understand that they don’t really understand how discrimination works – the fact that a very weak signal can lead to extremely strong segregation and discrimination.

    And even when they talk about the beauty intelligence link they often simply use correlations:

    Even while saying that science should be reductionist:

    It illustrates to me that, one of the things economics has realised while many other disciplines haven’t, in the unobjective nature of data – there should be reductionism, but testing hypothesis and interpreting data are so intertwined that it is nearly impossible to achieve true scientific fact.

    Hold on a sec, I’m ranting. I’ll stop.

  7. steven
    steven says:

    perhaps there are also other effects for good looking people. eg, teachers paid more attention to them during their own education.

    I wonder how this compares for other given jobs? It would be interesting to test if the increase in productivity is related to the level of interaction with people in producing the final output. That is, are ugly people better or worse at the non-people part of their jobs than pretty ones. although this would have a huge selection effect to control for. ugly people probably don’t choose public facing jobs quite as readily as good looking people.

  8. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Agreed, it is such a ridiculously hard issue to separate. I am guess you would need to do a twins study, where one of the twins lost physical appearance for an external reason at a young age. I don’t know if there is a data set available like that … or whether it is even moral …

  9. Kesari Tours
    Kesari Tours says:

    Ya Its a bitter truth, even no one wants to accept it but in our social environment we mainly face such type of issues!

    But the fact is also true beauty is only skin deep, If you do not have the required knowledge you cant do the work well and it will effect your performence and career also

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