Exclusive Interview: Beauty Pays Author Daniel Hamermesh Explains Why Ugly People Earn Less Than Beautiful People

Daniel S Hamermesh has created a new kind of economics: "pulchrinomics," the economics of beauty.

In his new book "Beauty Pays" ($24.95, Princeton University Press), Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas in Austin, measures the advantages that beauty brings in all aspects of life – as well as the disadvantages facing those who are viewed as being ugly.

According to his research, good-looking workers on average earn a total of $230,000 more than those with below-average looks, while good-looking professors get higher ratings from their students, and good-looking politicians win out over ugly ones.

In an email interview, Professor Hamermesh told us how ugly men suffer more financially than ugly women, why he can’t define beauty and what society can do to address the unfairness of aesthetics.

What discoveries most surprised you during your research? Firstly, that the effect of differences in looks on earnings were larger among men than among women. We explained this apparent anomaly by pointing to the fact that men have to work, so ugly guys are stuck getting jobs that pay them less than good-looking guys. An ugly woman, knowing that she will be penalized, can stay home; and we find that ugly women are less likely to work than better-looking women, a difference that doesn’t exist at all among men.

The other thing that initially surprised me was how much of the impact of beauty in so many areas of life could be thought about usefully with economic thinking. In the end, though, this turned out not to be so surprising, since beauty is scarce, and economics is about the impacts of scarcity.

How would you define a "beautiful" person? How would you define an "ugly" person? I wouldn’t and can’t. It’s like pornography— I know it when I see it.  We all tend to have similar, but undefined standards, so if you think someone is beautiful or ugly, most other people will be in pretty close agreement.

Are there societies in which beauty is not such a prevailing economic factor? There may be differences across countries. But I’ve seen studies of this for the U.S., Canada, Germany, Britain, China; and no doubt there are others. In all of them better-looking people earn more. And numerous studies for many countries have shown that better-looking people, women especially, find spouses who earn more.

How can someone perceived as "ugly" overcome this disadvantage it brings? Barring grossly invasive and expensive plastic surgery, they can’t. And the only study on the subject shows for women in China that spending more on clothing, hair and cosmetics barely altered their perceived beauty. 

What to do? Emphasize those things that you are good at—your intelligence, strength, nice personality. Looks are only one of many factors that affect how much one earns, how well one does in dating/marriage, how happy one is.

How do you feel about the conclusions you reach in the book? Overall, I feel good about this. It’s important to stress to people that our hang-ups about beauty may be overemphasized, that it’s just one of many things. It’s also important to quantify beauty’s effects to demonstrate that they are not so large as people might guess. They’re important, but not astronomical.

Has writing this book changed your own personal grooming habits? Not at all—but I started working on this topic at age 49, already pretty set in my ways, and started working on the book at age 65.   What reaction have you received to your book? The book was only published 10 days ago, so I have not gotten reactions to it, but I have received responses to my op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times, which really only reflected one chapter in the book. Perhaps unsurprisingly, right-leaning radio and TV hosts did not like the idea of thinking about government protection for the ugly.

To me the crucial question is whether we should think of beauty as productive, or as reflecting discrimination. This is a very tough question, since there’s no doubt that hiring a beautiful person raises a company’s sales. I would argue that beauty’s effects reflect societal discrimination, and that it is not inherently productive.