Does being plain make you poor?
Forget what your mother told you -- looks are important, especially where your job prospects are concerned, writes Chrissie Russell
Published 20/10/2011 | 05:00
Hands up if you've ever watched a co-worker sail to promotion, a TV presenter fluff their lines or an attractive woman with a rock on her finger and thought: "She's only got there because of her looks!"
It's not an attractive thought but there could be a kernel of truth in it, because it turns out that despite whatever worthy sentiments your mother told you as a child, looks do matter.
Good-looking people are more likely to nab jobs, get paid more and make more successful love matches. Whoever said you can't put a price on beauty was wrong. Research shows that beautiful people will earn over €100,000 more than less attractive people in a lifetime.
For more than 20 years, Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Austin, Texas, has investigated the links between looks and success.
In that time, the author of Beauty Pays discovered good-looking US attorneys earned more than their less-attractive peers; that attractive university lecturers received better evaluations from students; and that bad looks generated an earnings disadvantage of around $140,000 over a lifetime, compared to average-looking workers.
Disheartening news for anyone of average looks who has been plugging away for years under the misapprehension that it's hard work that leads to success, not a good waist-to-hip ratio.
But why does being beautiful make someone a more appealing job candidate?
Dr Kevin Denny, senior economics lecturer at UCD, has done research into the value we place on beauty and believes several factors are at play.
"The findings may partly be about health," he says. "Healthy people tend to look better and are generally able to do their job better. There's also the possibility that good-looking people are more confident and because they feel better about themselves they're more able to get a better job."
He adds: "But a lot of it is probably due to discrimination: We simply prefer people who are good looking. Our heads are turned when confronted with someone who is more attractive. Obviously in some jobs appearance is important, such as modelling, but research has shown that waitresses deemed more attractive get better tips, regardless of service, suggesting an element of sexual attraction is involved."
Occupational psychologist Kate Quinlan agrees with the notion that attractive people tend to be more confident.
She says: "Lots of research shows that attractive children get more attention. If they have been receiving positive affirmation since they were young, being told how good they are -- that will be self-fulfilling.
"They'll have higher levels of self-belief and confidence than a child who hasn't received the same affirmation."
Another factor is the halo effect. Quinlan, who specialises in business and management, explains: "The halo effect is a cognitive bias whereby people see one thing in somebody and it causes them to attribute lots of other positive traits. For example, they may see a good-looking person and perceive them to be more intelligent, more sociable and friendly."
Part of the reason behind the halo effect is biological. As humans we're genetically hard-wired to make snap judgements on people based on looks to assess whether they're an immediate threat or not. But it's also acquired: we're socially conditioned to ascribe certain characteristics to good-looking people.
"It works the other way too," says Quinlan. "It's called Halo and Horns. With the horns effect, negative attributes are attached to a trait." An example here would be when overweight people get automatically labelled lazy or unmotivated.
A recent study by UK economist Barry Harper revealed weight to be a pertinent issue on the pay scale. His study, carried out by London's Guildhall University, showed that small, fat secretaries earned 15% less than slim, beautiful colleagues, while attractive and tall men in sales jobs earned more than anyone.
Harper said: "Although there is some variation between jobs, the effects of appearance are generally widespread, suggesting that they arise from prejudices, including appearance, which affect careers."
The findings, he says, require the Government to review their equal opportunities policy and address the issue.
Harper's suggestion could be timely. In America, 61-year-old Shirley Ivey is suing her former employer in Washington for "lookism". She left her job at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs suffering from stress after allegedly being told by a supervisor that he would like her more if she was prettier.
It poses the question: do the unattractive need legal protection in a society that favours the pretty?
The fact that we're a society increasingly obsessed with looks is evident. Turn on Sky Sports and you're greeted with a bevy of blonde and brunette beauties reading out the fixtures with full pouting lips. Twenty years ago that was the domain of Saint and Greavsie or Des Lynam. Soap operas are the same, with older members looking like normal people while more recent recruits wouldn't look out of place on the catwalk.
We even expect our politicians to look good and reward them with votes for doing so. A Boylesports poll a few years ago found that 43%of respondents said a candidate's appearance would influence them and a third said they'd base their vote purely on looks. (Perhaps explaining the thinking behind those Mary Davis posters?)
Of course we've always appreciated beauty. Lets face it, Marilyn Monroe didn't become a star based solely on acting ability and JKF's appeal wasn't just about his policies. But a long-term study by Hamburg-based academic Sonja Bischcoff confirms we're becoming increasingly shallow.
In 1986 Bischoff found that just 6% of people surveyed said that appearance was something they considered important in a career. By 1991, the figure rose to 14%, by 1999 it was 20% and by 2003, 32% of men and 26% of women reckoned looks were important in their career aspirations.
The experts aren't clear how to define beauty. "What exactly is 'attractive' is controversial," says Dr Denny. "Some emphasise a woman's waist-to-hip ratio or bust size. Psychology research places importance on facial attractiveness, in particular symmetry." But forget beauty being in the eye of the beholder because Hamermesh found in his studies that respondents found the same people attractive.
However, a study earlier this year by the Royal Economic Society found that attractive women were less likely to get an interview than attractive men.
Female HR personnel tended to weight the deck when CVs came in with photos attached.
The survey found: "Female jealousy of attractive women is a primary reason for their penalisation in recruitment."
Sometimes even the beautiful are damned.