What good are good looks? I recently read this inspiring blog post encouraging women to pay less attention to looking pretty and just feel good, even if it means wearing a color that looks “bad” on you or wearing a tank top without having the arms of Michelle Obama.
But the economic reality is that many studies have shown there is a dollar value attached to having conventional good looks. On the whole, good looks are worth 3 to 4 percent more in earnings. One such study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, showed that better looking but equally intelligent people get paid more. The authors believe that good looking people tend to be more confident, so they are probably more likely to take ownership of their accomplishments and perhaps ask for raises. But intelligence is still ultimately more closely linked to better pay, trumping the effect of good looks against higher intelligence (as measured by IQ). Other studies show that being conventionally attractive also gets you hired sooner, which is an important step on the road to getting paid more, get more promotions, and therefore hold higher ranking in their companies.
But back to the inspirational blog post, is getting paid 3 to 4 percent worth the trouble to be pretty? Especially for women, who are expected to maintain a level of prettiness with all its blow-drying and eyelash curling that is not generally expected for men. Is it worth it to be pretty? Does more money make you happier? In an oft-cited paper by Richard Easterlin from 1970, relative wealth within your country matters more than relative wealth between countries – so being rich in a poor country makes you happier than being poor in a rich country. However, more recent studies by Wolfers and Stevenson (who are a great econ duo generally speaking) have disputed Easterlin’s findings and shown that there is a clear trend between income and happiness globally. But further inspection demonstrates the importance of question structure. It seems as though internationally relative wealth makes you more satisfied with your life, but that is not quite the same as pure happiness – which is more of a question of “do you think you have the best life you can?” compared to “are you feeling happy today?” So if pretty people earn a bit more, then they might be more likely to report higher life satisfaction.
But I do have a hunch that this is also tied back to self-confidence, which will help both earnings potential as well as reported life satisfaction. So if we just stop caring about prettiness and just become more self-confident because it feels good to let your flabby arms free and not brush your hair, then maybe you could ask for the damn raise and do well by yourself without the trouble of trying to be pretty.