Does Attractive Appearance Drive Academic Success?

Women with MirrorLet’s say you’re a brilliant economist. Does it matter how attractive you are? Perhaps it should not. But according to a new study, it most certainly does. Attractive economists get to study and work at more prestigious universities. They get better jobs in the private sector. They even get more more citations for the papers they publish.

Author Galina Hale did not expect what she found:

“Looks matter surprisingly a lot. It’s quite well known in the literature that in different careers, looks matter. We didn’t expect to find effects that large for academia because, you know, academics usually think of themselves as being above things like looks and, you know, being very objective. And, yeah, we were a little bit surprised by our findings.”

Attractiveness of 752 PhDs

These findings come from a working paper by Tali Regev, Yona Rubinstein, and Hale. They collected data on 752 PhD graduates from the ten top graduate programs in economics. These were students who graduated between 2002 and 2006. A random sample of 241 evaluators rated the attractiveness of graduates using online photographs from 2011. In addition, they collected data on job placement, publications, tenure status, and rankings of their institutions.

Perhaps the most surprising finding was the correlation between being attractive and research productivity. How can it be that appearance might be so influential? Hale et al offer their thoughts:

“There are a few possible explanations for why looks are valuable. Employers may have a taste
for looks, which is independent of their assessment of and value for the candidates’ talent and
productivity (ref. Becker). Or, appearance and productivity may be inherently correlated: Good
appearance gets you hired and published, either because you are a better communicator or because
people perceive you as such. Our analysis does not distinguish between these explanations, but it
does suggest human interaction is needed for the appearance effect to take place. The nature of
the academic job requires human interactions, and humans care about appearance. In this way,
academia is not so different from other industries.”

The Weight Bias Factor

We know that weight bias plays a potent role in employment and success. Experimental data tells us that employers will favor a thinner candidate over one with obesity, even if their credentials are identical. In fact, women with obesity suffer a significant wage penalty for no good reason. Obesity is an especially strong factor in perceptions about attractiveness.

More and more, we see explicit agreement that discrimination based on weight is wrong. Yet it seems that implicit bias based on appearance and weight is very real. Erasing this bias is an important challenge for us all.

Click here for the working paper from Hale et al. Click here for more from an interview with Hale on Marketplace. For further perspective from her on appearance and gender bias in academia, click here.

Woman with Mirror, painting by Fernand Leger / WikiArt

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February 20, 2021

2 Responses to “Does Attractive Appearance Drive Academic Success?”

  1. February 20, 2021 at 9:58 am, Michael Jones said:

    I’m honestly surprised by the surprise of these researchers. This bias is intuitively and experientially true. I was actually just discussing this with a med student rotating with me yesterday. Leave it to academics to think they would expect to be above others in anything!

    • February 20, 2021 at 10:41 am, Ted said:

      Count me as equally clueless, Michael. The surprise is not that appearance might introduce bias. But that it shows up in citations of research papers? Perhaps you search for images of authors before you make reference to their research papers. I don’t.