The Beauty Premium

Markus M. Mobius and Tanya S. Rosenblat researched the effect of an employee’s physical attractiveness to their wage – simply coined, “the beauty premium.”  Here’s their abstract:

     We decompose the beauty premium in an experimental labor market where ‘employers’ determine wages of ‘workers’ who perform a maze-solving task. This task requires a true skill which we show to be unaffected by physical attractiveness.  We find a sizable beauty premium and can identify three transmission channels.  (1) Physically-attractive workers are more confident and higher confidence increase wages.  (2) For a given level of confidence, physically-attractive workers are (wrongly) considered more able by employers.  (3) Controlling for worker confidence, physically-attractive workers have oral skills (such as communication and social skills) that raise their wages when they interact with employers.  Our methodology can be adopted to study the sources of discriminatory pay differentials in other settings.

To establish a common understanding, “what makes someone beautiful?”  The most common and simplistic objective definition of beauty is facial symmetry.  A centered and straight vertical line down one’s forehead to chin should evenly intersect the mid-point between the eyes, tip of nose, and lips.  And with the left and right halves of the face divided, each half should be an exact mirrored copy of the other half.  A beautiful face is symmetrical – centered and mirrored.

Mobius & Rosenblat differed in their approach to measuring or scaling for facial beauty.  Rather than quantify and baseline against rulered ratios for a person’s facial symmetry, they had 50 evaluators rate a person’s headshot on a scale from 1 to 5 (plain to above average beautiful).  This qualitative method for rating a person’s “hot or not-ness” is vulnerable to cultural bias and preference.  Since their baseline is an unreliable measure for the common and objective definition of facial beauty, what did they actually study if it wasn’t beauty?


Beauty is a flower to a human.  It’s neat even at a distance.  Attractiveness is a flower to a bee.  It’s inviting and draws one in.  Mobius & Rosenblat’s “beauty premium” only determines that attractiveness is synonymous with confidence; and high degrees of confidence can lead to increased wages.

We have a confidence premium…with a problem.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s Nobel Prize winning research on confidence discovered a strong correlation between overconfidence and incompetence.  People who are not skilled in a particular area tend to overestimate their competence, whereas people with developed skill and training tend to underestimate their level of competence.  Quoting Charles Darwin, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

An ignoramus is ignorant of their ignorance.  Dunning & Kruger argue that “when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

As we sensualize and empower confidence, we also erode empathy.  Jeremy Hogeveen, Michael Inzlicht, and Sukhvinder S. Obhi studied how people primed to be powerful demonstrate lowered activation in the human mirror system.  The powerful show reduced levels of even mentally mirroring other people’s actions, a key indication of empathy.  They lose the ability to imagine life in another person’s shoes.  Powerful individuals ignore “peripheral” information in social settings, thereby diminishing the ability to empathize as well as deteriorating social intelligence.

We think confidence is attractive.  Yet, confidence is led by incompetence.  We enrich and empower confident individuals.  And this power reduces their empathy and social intelligence.

Here in lies our cultural slide.

Confidence is not a virtue or principle.  Confidence is conceit.  The magnetic virtue in us is courage – acting in principle despite fear, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.  We mistake confidence for courage and end ourselves seduced by those who are destined to grow unaware of their own incompetence, base their socialization on shallow stereotyping of groups rather than seek individuating information about new partners, and lack the ability to take the visual, cognitive, and emotional perspectives of others.

Why Beauty Matters – Markus M. Mobius and Tanya S. Rosenblat (2005)

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments – Justin Kruger and David Dunning (1999)

Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others – Jeremy Hogeveen, Michael Inzlicht, and Sukhvinder S. Obhi (2014)

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