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Law of attraction: Why beautiful people are so successful

Science has shown that when an attractive person asks you to do something, you do it. It’s also shown that attractive people get hired quicker, paid more and get promoted sooner, and that generally, we simply consider beautiful people better adapted to modern life itself.

But before you break out the botox, let’s get some answers: what mechanisms are at play here? Are there any instances in which beauty is a disadvantage? And are there strategies that the less-attractive can use to level the playing field?

There is a lot of research out there that suggests attractive people make more money, and are more successful in the workplace generally, compared with average or below-averagely attractive people.

A 2012 paper published by the Middle Tennessee State University found that beauty has a “significant effect” on individuals’ earning potential. The paper examined several labour markets to determine the effect of participants’ perceived beauty on success in those markets. It found that “beauty augments more attractive agents’ wages”, and said that “more attractive agents use beauty to supplement classic production-related characteristics such as effort, intelligence and organizational skills”.

Simply put, good looking agents make more money without trying any harder.

Employer/employee dynamics

Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas at Austin labor economist and pioneer of ‘Pulchronomics’, the economic study of beauty, found that handsome men are likely to make 13% more during their careers than less attractive peers, as outlined in his 2013 book, Beauty Pays.

Hamermesh’s studies reveal that attractive people are more likely to be employed, obtain loan approvals more easily, negotiate loans with better terms, and have more handsome and highly educated spouses.

[Image: Daniel Hamermesh, a University of Texas, who, according to Smithsonian, “rates himself a solid 3 on the 1-to-5 looks scale that he most often uses in his research”.]

Looking to qualify Hamermesh’s findings, another paper from Harvard University and NBER in 2005 looked at the effects of attractiveness on employer/employee relations specifically.

The paper described an experiment where participants were divided into ‘worker’ and ‘employer’ categories. The ‘workers’ were then assigned a task asking them to solve as many computer maze quizzes as possible within fifteen minutes. ‘Employers’ were then tasked with determining the wages of the ‘workers’ based on their skill in performing the task.

The results?

Even though the maze-solving task is a ‘true-skill’, i.e. one unaffected by physical attractiveness, employers consistently (and wrongly) expected good-looking workers to perform better than their less attractive counterparts.

This effect, dubbed ‘the beauty premium’, is “economically significant” said the researchers, and “comparable to the race and gender gaps in the US labor market”.

Other studies suggest we’re also more trusting of attractive people, and studies have even concluded that attractive people are more likely to be employed during economic recession than their less endowed peers.

This privileged life that is enjoyed by the beautiful few may be due to a cognitive bias known as the Halo effect, a phenomenon first described by Edward Thorndike in 1920, that says our perception of someone’s interior attributes often reflects their physical characteristics. Simply put, from the perspective of our imperfect brains, “good-looking equals good”.

And this tendency is pervasive. It colours teachers’ expectations of students, how jurors see defendants and even the way we feel about disembodied entities, such as brands. 

The interwebs

The internet has been celebrated as the great leveller. It doesn’t matter your race, creed or gender, because, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Unfortunately, that’s not really true. Many online platforms – crowdfunding platforms, for example – place a premium on transparency, and that usually means some sort of visual representation, providing an opportunity for beauty bias to enter the equation.

There are plenty of ways to improve your chances of success when it comes to crowdfunding. Have a great promo video. Do a lot of updates about the project’s progress. We’ve spilled a fair bit of ink about this ourselves. But physical attractiveness also plays a part.

New research from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the National University of Singapore, and Nanyang Technological University, examining bias on online charitable microfinance lending platform Kiva, found that more “attractive, lighter-skinned, and less obese borrowers are favoured”.

To conduct the study, dubbed ‘Beauty, Weight, and Skin Color in Charitable Giving’, the researches ranked the appearance of those asking for microloans by “attractiveness, skin color, and physique”. They found that attractiveness absolutely played a part in deciding which requests received funding, with “borrowers with beauty one standard deviation above average…are treated as though they are requesting approximately 11% less money.” 

Funders were more likely to open their purses for attractive people.

That wasn’t the only variable that dictated how likely lenders were to respond to requests, however. Somewhat hearteningly, the same research found that borrowers who appeared “more needy, honest and creditworthy” also received funding more quickly than others.

And we may not be as powerless against our biases as it may first appear. While “the evidence [of the research] suggests implicit bias,” the study reads, “more experienced lenders, who may rely less on implicit attitudes, appear to exhibit less bias than inexperienced lenders.”


Concepts of attractiveness are, of course, closely tied to gender. We’ve talked about it before, and new research shows that investors often favour male entrepreneurs over female, and particularly favour attractive males over their less-attractive brothers.

Curiously however, crowdfunding doesn’t seem to exhibit the same gender bias. Women, it turns out, are actually more likely to succeed in their Kickstarter campaigns than men.

A recent study from NYU and the University of Pennsylvania found that crowdfunding women were more successful than men when using the site, especially when it came to tech projects. 

“We find that women outperform men”, says the report, “and are more likely to succeed at a crowdfunding campaign, all other things being equal.”

“[T]his effect primarily holds for female founders proposing technological projects, a category that is largely dominated by male founders and funders.”

“We find that a small proportion of female backers disproportionately support women-led projects in areas where women are historically underrepresented. This suggests an activist variant of choice homophily, and implies that mere representation of female funders without activism may not always be enough to overcome the barriers faced by female founders.”

Women, it seems, will support other women, given the chance.

Kickstart success rates across product category by gender

Image via The Atlantic

So it may be a bitter pill to swallow, but you can’t argue with the facts: time and time again research has shown that attractive people have a distinct advantage in life.

But none of this is to say that success is exclusively the domain of the attractive.

Successful people are often “socially optimisitic”, ready and willing to offer value in a way unsuccessful people aren’t, and that’s not necessarily contingent upon the genetic lottery. The old adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is correct of course, with success often coming to those who are best at building networks, rather the prettiest at the table.

Similarly, the high expectations we implicitly have for attractive people can work against them. Smithsonian.com refers to a 2006 study that found employers tend to expect less from less-attractive people. When traditionally unattractive employees perform above these low expectations they are rewarded. Similarly, when attractive people find themselves unable to meet the high expectations placed upon them, they may be hit with some kind of ‘beauty penalty’.

“You might see this as wages being depressed over time,” says Rick K. Wilson, a Rice University political scientist who co-authored the study. “We have these really high expectations for attractive people. By golly, they don’t often live up to our expectations.”

And if you’re not one life’s more genetically-blessed individuals, don’t despair. There are, according to science, more than a few things you can do to bolster your attractiveness. And none of them involve botox.

Now if your ego can take it, check out Business Insider’s 50 Sexiest CEOs Alive.

Jonathan has been a writer longer than he cares to remember. Specialising in technology, the arts, and the grand meaning of it all, in his spare time he enjoys reading, playing guitars, and adding to an already wildly overstocked t-shirt collection.

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