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Was It Hard Work, or Your Good-Looking Face That Got You a Raise?

Tina Fey is, as usual, ahead of us all. A recent episode of her sitcom 30 Rock titled "The Bubble" evolved around a ridiculously handsome man who had no idea he was something of an idiot. Everyone around him treated him so well that his self-esteem soared far beyond his actual capabilities.


The character was a comic exaggeration, of course, but a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests the episode was grounded in good science. It finds physical attractiveness has a significant positive influence on an individual’s self-confidence, income and financial well-being.

“This study finds that, even accounting for intelligence, one’s income prospects are enhanced by being good-looking,” report authors Timothy Judge, Charlice Hurst and Lauren Simon of the University of Florida Department of Management. One reason for this, they explain, is that “people who are attractive do think more highly of their worth and capabilities,” and this self-confidence “results in higher earnings and less financial stress.”

“We can be somewhat heartened by the fact that the effects of general mental ability on income were stronger than those of facial attractiveness,” the scholars write. “It turns out that the brainy are not necessarily at a disadvantage to the beautiful, and if one possesses both intelligence and good looks, then all the better.

“Moreover, the effects of self-concept are particularly noteworthy. Its effects on income are stronger than those of attractiveness and nearly as strong as intelligence.” The researchers add that a core feeling of strong self-worth can play “a critical role” in creating a successful life.

Self-esteem arises from a variety of sources, but the authors refer to previous studies suggesting good-looking infants receive preferential treatment from their earliest caregivers. Attractive kids are typically seen as special and treated accordingly (including by their teachers), setting the stage for an adulthood of strong feelings of self-worth and increased chances of success in life.

The researchers analyzed data from the Harvard Study of Health and Life Quality. They focused on 191 men and women between the ages of 25 and 75, all of whom participated in multiple interviews, completed intelligence tests and agreed to be photographed.

Several members of the research team rated each participant’s facial attractiveness; their scores were combined into an attractiveness rating for each participant. These ratings were then compared with other variables that influenced their income and overall financial status, including their core self-evaluation, educational attainment and general mental ability.

The study includes a cautionary note for employers, noting they should “make an effort to reduce the effects of bias toward attractive people in the workplace.” (Perhaps that 30 Rock episode should be shown at management seminars.) “Nevertheless,” they add, “the elimination of stereotyping among employers would not entirely overcome the beauty premium.”

Fortunately for those of us unlikely to make People magazine’s "100 Most Beautiful People" list, there are other “premiums” as well. As Judge and his colleagues note, “In our findings, education exerted a stronger direct effect on earnings than attractiveness, indicating that working to increase the former has greater payoffs.”

In the end, the nerds will have their revenge. But the ultimately advantage rests with the better-looking brainiacs.

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