Stamatakis: Looks shouldn’t dictate income

By Nick Stamatakis

Pretend for a moment that you’re a recent high school graduate.

You have two options: You… Pretend for a moment that you’re a recent high school graduate.

You have two options: You can either A, go to school and obtain an Associate’s Degree in a field like engineering technology or health care, or B, go to the gym for two years to become a more attractive person.

As a society, we hope people choose A. We need more educated workers to improve our economy and raise everybody’s standard of living. While it would be nice to have tons of attractive people wandering around, we can reasonably assume a better-educated society is preferable.

But recent data indicates that B would be the wiser decision. Last year, University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh placed the premium for being handsome at $230,000 over one lifetime. For life path A, the apparently responsible decision, the premium is only $200,000 against a simple high school education, according to a 2007 Indiana University study.

In other words, it seems like people should pick the supposedly irrational option; we should want hot people, not smart people. We’ll pay more for the square-jawed, ax-wielding lumberjack than the square glasses-wearing number cruncher, spend more on a 34-24-34-dimensioned brunette than a 34 ACT-scored muddy brown.

There are two explanations for this. The first is that hot people really are more valuable than smart people. In fields like modeling, acting, sales and customer service, this is probably true, since a pretty face and decent build have been shown to attract more customers and keep people happy.

Even in less obvious fields, attractive people might just be better at their jobs. With more charisma, they might be more inclined to take on leadership roles, and might excel at convincing people to follow a clear strategic plan. Attractive employees might simply make people in the office happier.

But given that most jobs — engineering, consulting, accounting and coding, to name a few — place value only on the end product, it’s unlikely that beautiful people are better at every job. And even if the beauty premium derives from the morale boost that attractive people provide, it still lends credence to the second explanation of biology.

Instead of making decisions on a rational basis, our natural urge to procreate, as in so many other cases, interferes with decision making. Everybody gets a case of the hubada hubada when they’re trying to make a clear-minded decision about an attractive person.

But just because this is a natural reaction doesn’t mean it’s right, no more than deep-seeded racial biases are right. Although culture, not biology, determines who’s attractive, any form of appearance-based discrimination is wrong.

Even in a case of a soft bias — the category appearance discrimination most often falls under — we collectively say no way. As Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes clear, hiring somebody because they “seemed to be a better fit” is lawfully unacceptable.

There should at least be efforts to make similar laws about appearance discrimination. Even if they would be almost impossible to enforce — who knows how you would define somebody as unattractive? — they would create pressure to hire based on criteria other than looks. Attractive candidates who seem like “a better fit” wouldn’t have as much of an advantage. Considering that appearance-based discrimination allegations abound, these efforts would improve many people’s welfare.

In their private lives, people have every right to make friends and associate based on appearance — it’s naive to think we can immediately forget thousands of years of evolution. As long as people are attracted to each other, physical appearance will continue to shape how we behave.

But for the sake of our collective productivity and standard of living, merit should always trump looks. Color-blind standards should be grouped with another category: appearance-blind standards.

Hopefully, if these ideas gain traction, a high school graduate may someday be better off with an Associate’s Degree than a gym membership.

Contact Nick at [email protected]