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Good looks confer real advantages in work and school, research says

Add looks to the list of factors that can provide an advantage or disadvantage in life. New research suggests attractiveness is a "source of inequality" that impacts wages, grades and even how others perceive a person's competence.

Sociologists Rachel Gordon from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Robert Crosnoe from University of Texas at Austin studied the issue, their findings just published in a peer-reviewed book for the Society for Research in Child Development.

The book is titled "Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Assets and Distractions." Gordon and Crosnoe based their research on study of close to 9,000 high school students, who were followed into adulthood.

"People’s personal appearance has powerful effects on their life chances,” they wrote in a briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families. “Our research shows that the critical period in which inequality on the basis of looks establishes itself is in high school.”

They found that women are paid about 8 percent more if they are better looking than average and suffer a 4 percent wage penalty for below-average looks. Men only gain 4 percent for being above-average handsome, but pay a bigger penalty if they fall short of the average standard: They make 13 percent less.

The researchers also pointed out that, beginning in high school, those who are better looking seem to be perceived as smarter and as having a better personality and greater potential for success.

Beauty standards

The findings on school achievement especially stood out for Gordon, she said. "Those who are attractive vs. average score higher on average on their (grade point average)." She noted a "big body" of psychology literature that suggests that ideas of who is attractive are quite consistent and may even come from a biological bias that favors certain traits including facial symmetry. The old saying that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" may not be quite accurate.

Crosnoe agreed. "Given how much conventional wisdom (in the public at large but also among researchers) is that attractiveness is very culturally specific and that standards of beauty differ across diverse groups, the most surprising thing to me was how the patterns we found (which kids were deemed attractive and the academic advantages that they had) did not vary by race, ethnicity, or social class," Crosnoe said. "The rule was similarity, not difference."

Gordon said she hopes people take time to think through the way social aspects of high school affect kids and peers and teachers. "I can't point to particular interventions; there hasn't been much work with high schools. But think about ways they are big, diverse, it's hard to stand out, one can get lost in a crowd. If teachers and parents are thinking about this, we can potentially start to push those barriers down."

In one experiment they wrote about, young men were shown photos that they were told were of a woman they were about to talk to by telephone. Some saw attractive photos, others unattractive photos.

"The men who were shown the better-looking partner expected her to be more sociable and humorous than did men shown the less attractive partner. And in a self-fulfilling prophecy, they actually elicited such behavior from the people they assumed to be attractive. Independent judges listening to a phone call between two people rated both the woman and the man as warmer and more sociable when the caller had been portrayed as attractive rather than unattractive," Gordon and Crosnoe wrote.

Countering bias

The researchers also noted that a bias toward beauty in high school does matter. It may create a "self-fulfilling prophecy" or simply boost confidence. The mechanism is unclear. But "while we may think that the superficiality of high school social hierarchies wears off as people age, we find that youth rated as better looking get higher grades and are more likely to attain a college degree than their peers, setting the stage for better economic outcomes through adulthood," Gordon and Crosnoe wrote.

"In fact, the difference in GPA and college graduation rates between youth rated by others as attractive versus average in looks is similar to the differences in academic achievement between youth raised in two-parent versus single-parent families!"

The bias based on looks appears to start early, Gordon said. Some of the social and psychological data shows that "in elementary schools, teachers have higher expectations of the kids who are more attractive. There are methods to eliminate the bias, such as taking names off of papers when grading them," she noted.

There is also a downside to being attractive, the researchers said.

"Youth rated as more physically attractive are more likely to date, have sexual partners and drink heavily. These favors, in turn, have negative consequences for immediate grades and later college completion." They also acknowledge other research that has found a "beauty penalty" for women in male-dominated fields, but they say that, overall, attractiveness helps.

Other views

The Council on Contemporary Families gathered commentary from experts not involved with the research.

Lookism is a bad bargain for women, said Caroline Heldman, chair of the politics department at Occidental College. She wrote that "the benefits of lookism in the workplace are overstated for attractive women because beauty actually serves as a barrier for women in corporate and political leadership positions. Not only are sexually attractive corporate managers rated as less competent by their peers and employees, attractive female political candidates are perceived as less competent in the eyes of voters."

"If people really believed that 'everyone is beautiful,' anorexia and facial and bodily surgeries would not be so ubiquitous in adolescent life," wrote Michigan State University professor Barbara Schneider. "Given that young people continue to exclude and bully those viewed as unattractive, the fiction that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' is simply disingenuous and potentially harmful."

Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist, warned against teaching children to define themselves in terms of how they look. "One of the biggest predictors of who succeeds in life, attractive or otherwise, is self-discipline, which involves regulating and managing emotions, learning how to tolerate frustration, maintaining focus without excessive distractibility, and developing the ability to delay gratification.

"Emphasizing and promoting your child’s good looks can actually undermine the exercise of these skills, as many childhood winners of movie contracts and beauty pageants have found to their costs," he wrote.

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