Why attractive people earn more money

A little discussed aspect of pay discrimination concerns physical attractiveness.

Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed and secure job offers, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers, and they earn higher wages than less attractive individuals.

Recently published in the journal Behavioral & Brain Sciences, behavioural biologist Dario Maestripieri and his colleagues Nora Nickels and Andrea Henry at the University of Chicago have written a paper explaining why the ‘beauty premium’ exists.

Previous explanations

The authors argue that these biases have “baffled economists for decades because they are not predicted by their rational models of human behavior.” According to the taste-based discrimination model developed by economists, attractiveness-related financial and prosocial biases are the product of individual preferences or prejudices.

This explanation is unsatisfactory for various reasons. Taste-based discrimination does not differentiate domains, and it does not explain why people have these preferences in the first place. Because empirical support for economists’ explanations is weak, the authors contend economists have frequently avoided explanations for this phenomenon altogether.

Social psychologists have also tried to explain these biases. According the authors, social psychologists  have maintained that attractiveness is seen as a marker of positive traits, such as a favourable personality, trustworthiness, and professional competence.

Maestripieri and his colleagues review studies looking into the favourable treatment of attractive individuals, and find no evidence for this explanation.

Firstly, it is ruled out that physical attractiveness accompanies these qualities. For example, studies on the jobs market which included information about people’s personality traits found that attractive employees earned higher wages, even after controlling for personality.

Although the jury is still out, laboratory based experiments suggest that attractive people may actually be less cooperative and less trustworthy than others. The authors argue that this is most likely due to attractive individuals expecting favourable treatment, and are therefore less inclined to cooperate.

Cited in the paper is a meta-analysis on the effects of attractiveness on hiring decisions, which concluded biases in favour of attractive people are independent of the amount of job-relevant information employers have about potential employees. If positive stereotypes were the cause, then the effect should be stronger when less information is available about potential employees.

Similarly, another meta-analysis cited found that preferential treatment is independent of familiarity: the effects of physical attractiveness are just as strong when people know each other as when they do not. If positive stereotypes were the cause, then one would expect favourable biases to recede once employers know their employees better.

Another dynamic which negates the positive stereotypes explanation is that when those doing the recruiting are women, attractive female job candidates are less likely to be hired than unattractive ones. Although less pronounced, there is some evidence that this also happens with men. If positive stereotypes were the cause, then attractive individuals would receive favourable treatment regardless of the recruiter’s sex.

Mating Motives

So what does explain these biases in favour of attractive employees?

According to Maestripieri and his colleagues, the best explanation is that attractive people are favoured because they are considered potential romantic partners. “Evolutionary psychologists… recognize that physical attractiveness has intrinsic value and it is not simply a marker of behavior. Therefore, there is an incentive to invest in attractive people because of their high mate value, regardless of their psychological or behavioral characteristics.”

An important caveat added by the authors is that these motivations can be activated without one’s conscious awareness, regardless of one’s moral principles, and irrespective whether such motivations would ever be acted upon. “[…] [T]he human mind is probably predisposed to respond to cues of mating and activate courtship behaviors regardless of any conscious awareness of goals, incentives, or probabilities of future gains.”

The evolutionary explanation also answers why attractive individuals receive less favourable treatment from members of the same sex during the hiring process. The authors argue this is the result of same-sex competition, manifesting in emotions such as jealousy and envy.

Likewise, evolutionary psychology can also explain why attractive women receive less favourable treatment from other women during the hiring process, whilst men are less susceptible to this. A robust sex difference concerning romantic interest is that men place more importance on physical beauty, whereas woman place greater emphasis on social status. Comparatively, attractive women are considered greater rivals than attractive men are.

The greatest evidence in favour of the evolutionary explanation comes from experiments involving attractive individuals as bystanders. If stereotype based theories were correct, then third-party observers are irrelevant and would therefore not impact subsequent behaviour. However, experiments have found that in the presence of attractive women, men behave more pro-socially in economic games; that men more frequently help strangers in need, and are more willing to make physical sacrifices for their group.

The evolutionary explanations of these favourable biases assume that multiple motivations may simultaneously be at play; some of these are related to obtaining resources (e.g. money), whereas others may be social (e.g. gaining status) or purely sexual. “Just as financial considerations can drive decisions about partner selection for romantic and mating purposes, it should not be surprising that mating motives can influence economic decision making”. The authors emphasise that sexual and financial motives are closely intertwined in human affairs.

A large body of research demonstrates that women are more selective than men in their choice of sexual partners, and of the circumstances in which sexual interactions can take place. Therefore, Maestripieri and his colleagues argue the effects of attractiveness on decision making may be more consistent, and perhaps stronger, in men than in women.

Homosexuality is not addressed within the paper. However, research suggests that gay men similarly place greater importance on physical appearance than women do (heterosexual or otherwise).


Unfortunately, the authors do not comment on how such biases could be addressed in practice.

Such biases may seem insurmountable. The authors note that men more frequently hold positions of power, including responsibility surrounding hiring decisions. Therefore, these biases may be amplified by the amount of men at the top of the hierarchy.

However, organisations could provide some safeguards throughout the hiring process. For a start, recruiters could require applicants’ names and gender to be removed from job applications, which would help remove such biases from the initial stages of the recruitment process.

A wealth of research demonstrates that cognitive debiasing techniques don’t work. However, this doesn’t mean bias cannot be addressed more successfully within groups. We may not be able to see the flaws in own thinking, however we can spot it more readily in others.

One approach organisations may want to explore are protocols for job interviews. For example, ensuring interview panels comprise a combination of men and women. Such a dynamic may help counter such biases when it comes to making hiring decisions.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

Clive here to read the full paper

*Post updated 16th May 2017

Maestripieri, D., Henry, A., & Nickels, N. (2017). Explaining financial and prosocial biases in favor of attractive people: Interdisciplinary perspectives from economics, social psychology, and evolutionary psychology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40.

Image credit: Selina Voilé

References & recommended reading

Buss, D. (2016) Evolution of Desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised Edition). Basic Books

Hamermesh, D. S. (2013) Beauty Pays: Why attractive people are more successful. Princeton University Press

Hosoda, M., Stone-Romero, E. F. & Coats, G. (2003) The effects of physical attractiveness on job-related outcomes: A meta-analysis of experimental studies. Personnel Psychology 

Langlois, J. H., Kalakanis, L., Rubenstein, A. J., Larson, A., Hallam, M. & Smoot, M. (2000) Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 126(3):390–423.

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