It’s an outdated trope that women only rise in the workplace because of their looks. And perhaps a new study will put this attitude to bed.
A new study has found that men actually benefit more from physical attractiveness in school and the workplace than women do.
Researchers from the Polish Academy of Sciences examined data on over 11,000 Americans over 20 years from adolescence to adulthood, including ratings of their looks, information on their educational and career achievement, and their earnings.
They found that people who were rated as more attractive at age 15 were more likely to surpass their parents in earnings and achievement once they reached their 30s. This effect was much stronger for men than it was for women, especially in the area of education.
Being attractive gives you a better chance of surpassing your parents in multiple ways: education, work, and earning. This effect holds true for everyone, but for men, the results are especially pronounced
Experts have argued that, from an evolutionary perspective, looking attractive can be a sign that someone is a suitable, fit, disease-free partner.
And beyond that, people tend to rate conventionally attractive people as more intelligent, trustworthy, and talented.
In the new study, researchers set out to explore the material effects of these supposed biases.
To do this, they pulled data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health for short), a long-term study following about 20,000 people from adolescence into adulthood. Some dropped out over time, so the new study includes data on 11,583 people.
These figures include physical health data, demographic information, socioeconomic data, and, oddly, ratings of physical attractiveness.
Study participants came in every few years to answer questions for Add Health.
At each visit, interviewers were asked to rate participants on their attractiveness – a five point scale ranging from ‘very unattractive to ‘very attractive.’
Interviewers didn’t receive specific instructions on the criteria they should use to rate participants. But since studies have shown that multiple observers tend to agree on ratings of a person’s attractiveness, the Add Health ratings probably give an accurate picture of how people view each volunteer.
The team behind the study looked at how interviewers had rated participants’ looks when they came in for the first visit as teenagers, to how their lives had progressed about 20 years later.
Physical attractiveness at age 15 made a significant difference 20 years later, even after researchers took into account other factors that are known to have effects on a person’s socioeconomic status – things like childhood health, neighborhood conditions, and parents’ socioeconomic position.
This research aimed to look at how someone’s aesthetic appeal impacts their upward mobility, but in theory, the opposite effect is possible, wrote the study’s authors: Upward social mobility could result in greater attractiveness.
Researchers compared people’s attractiveness as teenagers to their success as adults. On the one hand, this helps ensure that the results they got were based on someone’s natural looks and not the effects of wealth, such as plastic surgery. But on the other hand, measuring someone’s appeal as a teenager may not give an accurate measure of how they’ll look as an adult
Once someone becomes wealthy, they can afford nicer clothes, a gym membership, or even cosmetic surgery to enhance their physical attractiveness.
For this reason, they focused on physical attractiveness as assessed at age 15.
Whereas earnings during adulthood may lead to hotter hair, face and body in adulthood, money can’t influence someone’s teenage looks. So by limiting the physical attractiveness assessment to adolescence, the researchers could be pretty confident that it was impacting social mobility, and not the other way around.
The results appeared this month in the journal Social Science Quarterly.
Breaking down the effects of these scientific hotness ratings by gender revealed a peculiar effect: Men seemed to benefit more from people thinking they looked good.
‘For males, we observe a social mobility gradient of physical attractiveness for all three mobility measures; that is, those assessed as attractive have higher mobility chances than those assessed as average,’ the study authors wrote.
And with each step up the ‘attractiveness ladder,’ men tended to increase this advantage.
‘Among females, the gradient is weaker regarding intergenerational educational and income mobility, and there are no significant differences in physical attractiveness categories regarding occupational mobility.’
The new results contradict a study from Scotland in 2013, which found that girls’ teenage attractiveness was an important factor influencing education outcomes.
A major limitation of this study, which the team acknowledges, is when they first assessed people’s looks.
Someone who is rated as unattractive as a teenager may bloom later on, for instance.
Of course, this work is just one datapoint in the picture of how attractive people get along in the world. The study’s authors point out that the specific measures they used to assess achievement could play a role in the results.
They also note that the differences they observed are more complicated than just ‘attractive’ versus ‘unattractive.’ People rated as ‘very unattractive’ had worse outcomes than those simply labeled ‘unattractive,’ so future researchers should note that these categories ought not be merged.