Social scientists have long been familiar with the "halo effect" -- the fact that beautiful people are perceived as being more intelligent, more successful and more popular than their less-attractive brethren.

The effect of this isn't minor. When someone is seen as being more successful, they're more likely to get an A in school. They're more likely to get hired. They're more likely to be elected. The consequences matter.

Those consequences extend to the workplace. For example, attractive MBA grads end up earning more than average ones, and the same goes for attractive lawyers. It has even been shown that when a good-looking CEO makes a television appearance, their company often sees a bump in its stock price.

Interestingly, new science shows that there also an earnings effect on the other side of the scale.

The research was conducted by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, and Mary Still, an assistant professor of marketing and management at UMass Boston. Their team analyzed earnings data from thousands of subjects between the ages of seventeen and twenty-nine.

At first, the results seemed to support the halo effect: more attractive people do earn more than those who are less attractive. However, that was only true without controlling for intelligence, health, and personality. Once those were controlled out, the importance of physical beauty disappeared.

Even more surprising to the researchers was what happened once they separated out the bottom two groups. Previous studies grouped unattractive and very unattractive people--they just became "below average."

But once Kanazawa and Still separated "unattractive" and "very unattractive" people into two groups, an interesting trend emerged: The top 3% of ugly people actually out-earned the fifty percent of people who were average-looking or just kind of ugly.

The researchers dubbed this the "ugliness premium" and attributed it to "the unique nature of very unattractive individuals."

Interestingly, another study confirmed the effect in a different sphere altogether: science. Ana Gheorghiu, a doctoral student at the University of Essex, had subjects look at the headshots of physicists and geneticists from around the world. Study participants were asked to rate the images on scales of attractiveness and intelligence, and the ugly again prevailed: While participants demonstrated more interest in the attractive scientists, they rated the uglier ones as more intelligent and capable.

It's worth noting that the "ugliness premium" absolutely does not hold in politics. Study after study demonstrates that good looks are correlated with political success; ugliness is not helpful.

Still, the overall theme of ugly being a plus in certain circumstances begs the question, "Why?"

There are a lot of theories about this. One is that we like to root for the underdog. Another is that we tend to be less threatened by those who are less attractive, so we're more likely to advance them in organizations (promotions correlated with higher pay).

UC Berkeley political scientist Gabriel Lenz has a different theory altogether: "My guess is that, in jobs where there's a premium on looking good, if you see a funny-looking person there, they've got to be amazingly talented, because it's the only way they could have gotten where they are."

Whatever the reason, it may simply serve as another reminder to try as hard as possible not to judge people on looks--either way.

Pretty or ugly, we're all human, and want to be seen not just for our physical appearance, but for the gifts we bring and the contributions we make.

Published on: Aug 25, 2017
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