Turns Out, Looks Do Matter

How you look most affects your life prospects, and looks can most definitely spell success, according to a report by the Council on Contemporary Families.

The council’s report, “In School, Good Looks Help and Good Looks Hurt (But They Mostly Help),” suggests that looks can be a reason for inequality—and that good looks are a lifelong advantage on a par with inequalities connected to race, class and gender. The report was written by two sociologists, Rachel Gordon, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Robert Crosnoe, from the University of Texas at Austin.

Personal appearance can have measurable financial consequences. For above-average looks, women gain an 8% wage bonus. They pay a 4% wage penalty for below-average looks. For men, the bonus is just 4%, but the penalty for below-average looks is even higher than it is for women: a full 13%.

Most people acknowledge that racial and gender discrimination still exists. In one study, for example, job applicants with White-sounding names got called back twice as often as those with Black-sounding names. Another study documented hiring bias in favor of men. Applicants applying as men were offered salaries 12% higher than applicants with identical qualifications who applied under women’s names.

From high school on, people rate better-looking people higher in intelligence, personality and potential for success. Gordon and Crosnoe found that young people rated as better looking receive higher grades and are more likely to attain a college degree than their peers, setting the stage for better economic outcomes through adulthood. In fact, the difference in GPA and college graduation rates between youth rated by others as attractive versus average in looks is similar to the differences in academic achievement between youth raised in two-parent versus single-parent families.

The study’s authors acknowledge some disadvantages to the popularity that comes with being seen as attractive. “Youth rated as more physically attractive are more likely to date, have sexual partners and drink heavily,” they note. These factors, in turn, have negative consequences for immediate grades and later college completion.”

 Research suggests a cumulative advantage to being considered attractive that continues long after high school cliques have dissolved. They find that even when people are listening to a speaker on a phone call, they tend to “hear” more warmth and sociability from individuals they have been primed to think are attractive than from individuals who have been portrayed as unattractive.

On balance, the report maintains, above-average looks provide people with long-term advantages while being unattractive is a source of disadvantage. Gordon and Crosnoe suggest in their report that parents and schools pay more attention to countering the effects of lookism.