The Beauty Premium?

Updated Dec 26, 2007: Ganesh brilliantly connects this with Gladwell’s Warren Harding Error in his book Blink.

Today we got the latest issue of Economist dubbed as the special christmas double issue. The article with the biblical sounding “To those that have, shall be given” caught my attention.

The first para hooked me completely:

IMAGINE you have two candidates for a job. They are both of the same sex—and that sex is the one your own proclivities incline you to find attractive. Their CVs are equally good, and they both give good interview. You cannot help noticing, though, that one is pug-ugly and the other is handsome. Are you swayed by their appearance?

The article covers research on whether being beautiful/handsome is correlated with financial success relative to the not-so-beautiful/handsome category. The article presents several pieces of research with the focus mainly on Dr. Hamermesh’s research. He has proved with several studies that beautiful people are economically successful and even goes on to calculate what he calls a beauty premium – the premium beautiful/handsome people can expect to gain and also a penalty if one is ugly. He conducted his research in USA, Canada, UK and China. Before you jump into any conclusions, the researchers looked primarily at professions in which beauty wouldn’t be a requirement. I have plotted the data from the article into a table below for better readability:

Essentially, if you are a beautiful woman in China you can expect a whopping 10% premium! I guess it really pays to be beautiful and at the sametime, ugliness in women can set one back by a even bigger 31% in China.

The article also touches upon previous research that shows that across the animal kingdom (including humans) beauty is essentially a function of how symmetrical your body is which in turn indicates how good a set of genes you have, the health you have and take this – your intelligence level as well.

Do you agree with this research? Think about it and click the continue-reading link below if you want to know what my conclusions are?

After I finished reading the article, i was really bothered by the conclusions because i felt that there were some problems with this research but i could not put my finger on it. I had a few discussions with Priya Raju and she suggested that we look at the Forbes 400 to see if we could find any pattern. Well, a cursory look at the Forbes 400 for 2007 seemed to indicate that most of the rich people don’t seem to be particularly good looking. Could be because many of them are past their primes. So that was a dead-end.

Then i went back to look at the data given in the article again and I started noticing some problems – first of all a major part of the research was done in USA/Canada a region where there is a general premium on looking good. In China, they just covered Shanghai. Given that China’s population is 1.4B people, looking at Shanghai to divine China’s preferences seem to be woefully wrong. Next, the data from the UK reveals that there is only a 1% beauty premium which is next to nothing.

The other part that is incorrect is the tie between intelligence and genes. It has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that it is nurture that plays the major role in intelligence and not genes. So to say that beautiful people will mostly turn out to be more intelligent is flawed. Also, it seemed that Dr. Hamermesh’s research was more focused on financial success and we already know that intelligence and financial success are not that well correlated.

Still i was not happy. I did a google search and lo, behold an article in Slate magazine by Tim Harford covering a similar topic came up.

Harford pointed to a great piece of research [PDF] that investigated the connection between beauty and better salary. The researchers devised an artifical labor market in which the workers had to do solve mazes in a 15 minute interval. Success is determined by the number of mazes one can solve in that window. When the candidates were interviewed, they were asked to predict how many mazes they could solve and then after they executed the task, the results were compared. It turns out the beautiful people overestimated their success by a significant margin. It turns that beautiful people tend to be more self-confident which in turn forecasts better success which in turn gets the employers to pay a premium – Now that seems to be the solution to the Beauty Conundrum.

I am sure The Economist does not read this blog, but if you do, please Economist, consider counter-arguments and alternative viewpoints when you present provocative research as a fait accompli. I rest my case.


After moving back to India, we were really starving for quality international news because we don’t get the New York Times or International Herald Tribune. Fortunately, we managed to convince our newspaper vendor to get us the Economist – we think it is one of the best magazines for covering international news across the globe in a pretty objective manner. Although it is quite expensive by Indian standards, it is well worth the price.


  1. Quote


    Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “blink”, has dedicated an entire chapter – “The Warren Harding Error” to this idea.

    With respect to your following comment- “Forbes 400 for 2007 seemed to indicate that most of the rich people don’t seem to be particularly good looking. Could be because many of them are past their primes. So that was a dead-end.”, here is a possible come back. As per Gladwell, he polled half of of Fortune 500’s list and found that majority of CEO’s were white and were a shade under 6 feet tall – taller than average male american. So, I would substitute beauty/handsome with regal and you would have some data to back up the idea that handsomeness/beauty/regality etc. may indeed be the premium.

    We often take physical attributes as a sign of ability to perform a job and perform it better. The biggest take-way for me from “Blink” was to recognize such inherent sub-conscious biases and make a concerted effort to get over them. Bob Golomb – the car salesman exemplified in the book shows us that it can be done.


  2. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 25, 2007, 11:45 am:

    This is brilliant. Though I read Blink a while ago, i didn’t make the connection between the beauty premium and the warren harding error.

    I remember the warren harding story as well as the bob golong story in the book. Somehow the discussion on how Warren Harding was an incorrect choice and was entirely based on his presidential looks didn’t get me all wound up as much as this article on beauty did.

    As you correctly said, both offer supporting evidence for the same concept – looks (height included).

    I have the same problem with Gladwell’s theory now that i have seen the Mobius Rosenblat research that brought out the confidence factor.

    I think good looks and by extension a good personality has a strong correlation to the confidence exuded by the person. Through my experience, i can also say that confidence is a key aspect of leadership.

    So my view is that, we subconsciously select our employees, our leaders for confidence. I have seen this happen so many times and many mistakes occur due to our subsconscious selection of confident people because they may not deliver the goods as is forecast as the research study has shown. If ever we want to be like Bob Golomb, we need to monitor our subconsious on this aspect.

    I am excluding professions where a good appearance is not a requirement and I think politics especially presidential politics should be categorized as one with appearance as a requirement.

    What do you think?

  3. Quote


    I am having a tough time convincing myself that there is a correlation between good personality and confidence that a person exudes. On the flip side, I can think of characters in history – Hitler, Napoleon, Truman, Churchill etc. who are certainly not handsome in the traditional sense but were good/great leaders (As much as I hate calling Hitler a leader).

    In fact, I believe that the leaders who “lack the personality” understand this and compensate for it via other mechanisms – hard work, persistence, communication, messaging etc.

    A good personality does not necessarily beget confidence. But, I do agree that confidence is a necessary pre-requisite for a leader. Strong inner belief in the cause(s) that you want others to buy into, having a plan to execute them and exemplifying how it can be done would automatically lead to confidence I would believe.


  4. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2007, 2:48 am:

    I am actually saying it is the other way around. We subconsiously select/follow confident people. Beautiful people because of the obvious attention they would have gotten since teen-age, generally appear as more confident. I am sure there are some exceptions but this would hold true for the majority of the beautiful people.

    Your examples of Hitler, Napoleon, Truman, Churchill actually strengthens my argument. They were all extremely confident people and hence were able to attract a following. In fact, Hitler’s case adds even more credence to my argument because he was able to convince people to do what is obviously wrong by his sheer personality.

    Your last point on leadership – strong inner belief, is where i think we get tripped up by beautiful people, because they exude a similar kind of confidence but without the strong inner belief in many cases, with the effect that the results don’t match their confidence.

  5. Quote

    Nice post Sukumar!
    I guess beauty does have a significant impact. There have definitely times when I ve thought about this, as in, do people really take efforts to overcome subconscious biases, because they really aren’t even aware of its existence?
    Anyways like you said , beauty and confidence sometimes go hand in hand and most of the confident people dont really let you down unless you have grossly overestimated their capabilities because of the ‘beauty/confidence’ factor (which is unlikely)…

    Anyways the message remains , monitor thy subconscious 🙂

  6. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 26, 2007, 11:52 am:

    Thanks. You seem to think that most often the beauty-confidence linkage is accurate. Did I understand that correct? To me the chances of tripping up are 50-50 atleast.

  7. Quote


    I agree that we sub-consciously select/follow confident people.

    I still need to think if a large population of “beautiful” people are truly confident. My initial instinct was to say “A good personality does not necessarily beget confidence”. Perhaps that was just wishful thinking on my part to probably give more credit to society than it deserves – that people would treat all beings as equal and would not impose this confidence on beautiful people by granting them the attention that you talk about.

    However, it looks like you maybe right.


  8. Quote
    pk.karthik said December 27, 2007, 12:05 am:

    Very Interesting Sukumar…

    I guess this an inherert vice or virtue among men folk…I mean i may be wrong …but as a guy ..i mean most us have the tendencies to look a girl if how she looks …or we will have an urge to see ( may be minute ..but it does exisit)…..if we hear a sweet voice…..i guess it is with our Gender per say….i may be wrong here…..

  9. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 27, 2007, 1:19 am:

    Thanks Ganesh. I think we should see it more as “beautiful people appear confident”. In my view borrowing from Rosabeth Moss Kanter, confidence is built with successes and from learnings via failures. If beautiful people because they have access to opportunities build up this confidence via these experiences, they will be really confident. If not, they may appear confident but not really confident on the inside.

    thanks. i think this tendency to give extra attention to the beautiful/handsome people would be universal. in fact, it may be dictated by how our brain is wired. not that we can’t overcome the tendency, it is just that it afflicts both the sexes. Since men have to be chosen by women (excluding arranged marriages), men may be extra-wired to this tendency.

  10. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 27, 2007, 12:30 pm:

    Posting this on behalf of Archana Raghuram:
    Great post Sukumar. Got me thinking long and hard even then I could
    not arrive at any conclusions. But I can talk about my personal
    experience. My sister is very beautiful and I am the ordinary looking
    person in the whole family. When I was young, I was fat and it made
    the difference even more stark. Yet, between the two of us, I am the
    more confident person (I can also claim I am the more successful of
    the two of us 🙂 ). I could think of so many other people I know. My
    personal observation has been that beauty and confidence, beauty and
    intelligence have no correlation.

    It reminded me of a conversation I had with my cousin sister. Why very
    often, in women, intelligence and beauty are negatively correlated.
    What we concluded was that beautiful women tend to attract attention
    easily, whereas women who are average looking do not have that
    advantage. So the only way they hold people’s attention is by being
    witty and humorous and informed. I am not sure if these observations
    are supported by facts.

    In conclusion, I sort of diagree with the finding of your post.
    Although, beauty may help make a good first impression, your success
    depends largely on the force of your character. It has less to do with
    external factors and more to do with your own self.

  11. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 27, 2007, 11:01 pm:

    Thanks. Maybe i did not present my findings well. Eventhough i did not agree with Dr. Hamermesh’s research because it focused mainly on North America which is a region that places excessive emphasis on looks and also his own research shows that the premium is only 1% in the UK. Overall, my view is that his research doesn’t apply to the rest of the world.

    Now in the USA, Dr. Hamermesh’s research proves that there is indeed a premium. Additionally, as Ganesh has said, Gladwell proved this with the Warren Harding error example.

    Now if you look at the other research i looked at it shows with data that it is not beauty that matters but possibly the confidence that matters.

    Going further, as your own example points which is my conclusion as well, that it is confidence that matters for success.

    In conclusion, i think (which you allude to in your beauty and intelligence are negatively correlated), by virtue of the easy opportunities beauty begets in N.A, they may appear as more confident and hence may attract better wages.

    And yes, of course, beauty is only the starting point. The problem is, salaries are fixed at the initial get go for the most part and if you are beautiful and because of that more confident, you get a better salary – the beauty premium. I can easily agree with this
    for the North America market and not the rest of the world.

  12. Quote
    Ganesh Vaideeswaran said December 28, 2007, 12:09 am:

    Archana, Sukumar

    I agree with Archana that “average” looking folks often compensate or use wit and humor to draw attention. Now does this wit and humor make them look confident to others and project an air of leadership as seen by others? I doubt it.

    I am still trying to see if the point that Sukumar is making is valid – that beautiful/handsome folks are afforded opportunities that gives them an air of confidence, how much ever false it might be. Why would we afford more opportunities to such folks. I can understand this – all things being equal one might choose a person with personality for a job than one who lacks it. Here is where I would assume that the ‘blink’ effect kicks in.

    Would we do the same sub consciously or otherwise if the person with the personality does not measure up to the one who lacks it?

    Here is another variable to this topic – I am inclined to believe ratio of personality to personality-lacking folks would be biased heavily towards the latter. Given this, I would assume that one would find at least an equal amount of confident folks from both sets. Would you agree Sukumar? So, how does the “Warren Harding” error relate to this?

    Having said all of the above, at the surface, the correlation between personality and leaders seems to be true. I am not able to convincingly nail it or agree with a few set of variables that would account for this.


  13. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 28, 2007, 1:18 am:

    I am saying something similar. I feel the less-beautiful people work on their personalities more, take more chances/risks and hence may have real confidence. Whereas beautiful people by virtue of their exteriors, get better opportunities but may appear confident.

    I think the first part of your 2nd point is correct. Additionally, you have to consider the superficially confident people in both sets. I would guess that there are more superficially confident beautiful people than superficially confident regular people.

    My guess is the blink effect is actually selecting for confidence and since beautiful, tall people etc appear more confident we tend to favor them. I think this argument is restricted to only North America – Hamermesh’s research shows this as well.

    In India, for example, i dont think this theory applies which is what Archana is pointing out. So let us restrict our debate to the North America market.

  14. Quote

    Awesome post, Sukumar and great comments so far.

    I think we can blame this also on evolution. Evolutionary psychology says we the people are an animal species driven by animal needs; Age old impulses to find the right mate and produce healthy offspring is wired into our brains and controls us from hiring a candidate to choosing a President.

    Sukumar you stated earlier that ‘It has been proved beyond reasonable doubt that it is nurture that plays the major role in intelligence and not genes’; While i personally subscribe to the same view on intelligence, decision making – whether it is hiring a person or voting a president – i beleive is still largely gene based. A person gets rich not just by being intelligent but also because others decided in his/her favor most of the time.

    As we evolve, decision making and especially sub-conscious (blink style) decision making can move away from gene based, subjective to a purely rational, objective process. ie. when the human mind is independent from biological roots. For now the Mind is the Brain. Such rational decision making can also happen with ‘wisdom’ that usually comes from experience/age. (Hiring a beautiful lady might decrease productivity of fellow co-workers 🙂

    The Wisdom Paradox explains both Wisdom as well as the Mind/Brain connection very well. I haven’t finished the book yet, so if I’ve more findings will post later.

    (On a lighter note, this is why all aliens from advanced civilizations look & dress alike – they have evolved to a point where beauty/fashion doesn’t matter:)

  15. Quote

    Some more googling : Dr Kanazawa seems to have done quite a bit of research on this topic and has done a couple of books on this subject as well – Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

  16. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 28, 2007, 9:25 am:

    Thanks Sibu for the interesting pointers. I need to read upon those. It will be nice if you can do a book review of the wisdom paradox book.

    I doubt if someone is going to prove that nature has a major role to play. I think the exact percentage split between nature and nurture is the only thing that needs to be figured out. I think it is clear to scientists that nurture plays a major role – whether it is 51% or 80% is not known. If someone has proved the reverse, i would like to look at that.

    Does the Wisdom Paradox book prove that Nature plays a bigger role than Nurture in brain development?

  17. Quote


    I just remember an interesting event in Chatrapathi Shivaji’s life.. Once his generals defeated his enemy, and produced a beautiful lady before him as prisoner. Having mesemerised by her beauty, he said to her “If my mother possessed your beauty, i would have been handsome”.

    After reading that, i just wondered. Even the most successful person, had that extra consciousness (of how they appear).

    Next thing is “the parameter for beauty”.. To be frank, many of the girls who dont impress me in the first sight, later appear as more beautiful 🙂 (after knowing them well).. is it just the appearance, or the way, one behaves, and the character they possess?

    it also depends on the maturity of the recruiter in dealing with this situation.

  18. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 29, 2007, 8:51 am:

    That is interesting Senthil. I had not heard of the Shivaji instance. Is there any reference or URL or anything for this example?

    Yes, i think in the end it is the overall personality that matters which takes time to shine through.

    Yes, it depends on the maturity of the recruiter, but as Malcolm Gladwell has shown lot of people succumb to “blink” decisions. There is even an adage in recruiting that says, the outcome of the interview is determined in the first minute of the interview.

  19. Quote

    Thanks Sukumar,

    I think, this google reference would be reliable..

    Shivaji and His Times By Jadunath Sarkar

  20. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said January 1, 2008, 6:30 am:

    Thanks Senthil for the accurate reference.

  21. Quote
    Jaskirat said January 2, 2008, 10:10 am:

    Yeah thats what I meant, that the beauty – confidence link is very plausible. Chances of tripping I have no Idea 🙂
    Since this seems to be happening and it seems to be working to say atleast 50 percent , I can only guess to why it actually seems to work … 🙂

  22. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said January 2, 2008, 10:46 am:

    Thanks Jaskirat. Why don’t you write what your guess is, as to why it seems to work?

  23. Quote
    Jaskirat said January 3, 2008, 7:13 am:

    My take at this is that since most of the time when you require people you have prerequisites to be fulfilled and that means the person in front of you (imagine: interview) surely has got his basic funda right. And that is why I think when you are selecting beautiful-confident people, although they might not be best of the lot, they sure will do for the work.
    Besides you wouldn’t want people with no self confidence, since they are a complete no-no (well actually depends on what you are looking for heh). But then sometimes there is also a correlation with confidence and work , people who are more confident are more likely to take up more risk and succeed rather than their confidence lacking counterparts.

  24. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said January 3, 2008, 8:46 am:

    Thanks for articulating your views. You’re right we generally tend to favor confident people. That’s what the research I pointed to from the Slate article shows and our experience confirms that.

    The problem is that beautiful people generally tend to come across as confident and we end up hiring them because of our subconscious preference for confident people.

    This is the reason I think we also prefer taller people – the Warren Harding error.

Leave a Comment



Formatting Your Comment

The following XHTML tags are available for use:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

URLs are automatically converted to hyperlinks.