Monday 15 August 2011

Discriminating against the ugly

A few years ago, Robin Hanson asked why we care so much about income inequality but so little about other forms of inequality: the beautiful get more friends and potential sexual partners, for example. From an ev bio perspective, inequality in opportunity to produce successful children and grandchildren is what matters most. Income inequality will contribute to that, but so too would inequality in physical attractiveness. If we redistribute resources from rich old ugly men to young poor attractive bohemian men, we may increase rather than reduce inequality. But do read Hanson's post for some potential reasons why some inequalities matter more politically than others.

Hanson pointed to a Washington Post oped that satirically called for beauty-based redistribution.

Now, the New York Post is taking beauty-based redistribution seriously.

In another, more synergistic universe, the site might have been a useful tool for labor economist Daniel S. Hamermesh, whose book Beauty Pays takes a more high-minded approach to the vagaries of looks. Specifically, it attempts to explain why attractive people make more money than unattractive people. A lot more money, in fact: $230,000 over the course of a lifetime, which holds true even in professions where looks wouldn’t seem to matter. Hamermesh found that fetching professors, for example, earn 6 percent more than their average-looking peers, while unattractive quarterbacks earn 12 percent less than their hunkier counterparts. Men, in fact, suffer the greater repulsiveness penalty in general: Unattractive women earn 3 percent less than average-looking women, while unattractive men’s take-home is reduced a whopping 22 percent.
But wait—how can something as subjective as beauty hold any value in an economic context? Therein lies the cold truth at the heart of these findings: A common standard of beauty does exist. Based on an attractiveness scale of one to five, most people surveyed will come to near agreement on a test subject’s looks, a finding that holds true across all cultures. And while extreme beauty and extreme ugliness are rare, 10 to 15 percent or so of the population falls into the “below-average attractiveness” category, where they will endure their pronounced asymmetries as long as they live. Beauty is not only scarce, it turns out, but unobtainable to those born without it: Studies show that homeliness is approximately as easy to change as race, which is to say, it’s not.
Knowing the extent to which people are economically penalized (or rewarded) for their looks raises the question: Should the ill-favored be protected? And if so, how? Hamermesh, in the Über-cautious fashion of an economist, predicts that the most unsightly people will eventually receive the same kinds of legal protection extended to Americans with disabilities. 
I have a hard time believing that this could ever be implemented; Hamermesh, in the article, points to some of the obvious problems. I'd expect that there'd be any number of entrepreneurs helping folks uglify themselves before going in for their government attractiveness rating.

I'd noted a couple weeks ago discrimination against the ugly at the ballot box by uninformed voters. Niclas Berggren found similar results in Finnish data a while back as well:
We study the role of beauty in politics using candidate photos that figured prominently in electoral campaigns. Our investigation is based on visual assessments of 1929 Finnish political candidates from 10,011 respondents (of which 3708 were Finnish). As Finland has a proportional electoral system, we are able to compare the electoral success of non-incumbent candidates representing the same party. An increase in our measure of beauty by one standard deviation is associated with an increase of 20% in the number of votes for the average non-incumbent parliamentary candidate. The relationship is unaffected by including education and occupation as control variables and withstands several other robustness checks.
Presumably then voters who cannot constrain themselves against preferring more attractive political candidates would be the ones choosing policies to limit the advantage of beauty.

Where's Diana Moon Glampers when you need her....


  1. I'm still mulling over the '10 to 15 percent or so of the population falls into the “below-average attractiveness” category'.

  2. '10 to 15 percent or so of the population falls into the “below-average attractiveness"'

    Really? Surely for it to be a true average, half have to be above it, and half below.

    I do understand your point though, that ugly-enough-to-be-descriminated-against is a relatively small proportion of the population.

  3. They take the bottom few categories of attractiveness; most folks are in the middle range.

  4. The law already bans several kinds of discrimination it can't detect and won't try; for instance, job discrimination against those over 40. The only results of these laws are to offer false hope to victims and make lawyers richer and business insurance more expensive, as a few angry people with more money than brains try to convince juries of what is impossible to prove.

    The latest (so far) chapter in these stupid crusades is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which "works," to the extent it does, only by putting the burden of proof on the wrong side. Most of the time, asking for accommodation in an interview guarantees you won't be hired, because ADA-protected people are huge walking liabilities from the point of view of the potential boss. (And that's not even touching on the fact that ADA protects some non-deserving people, like the recent case of the alcoholic truck driver.)

    So however righteous you may think these causes are, it's time to roll back these laws and stop "protecting" any new classes of people from discrimination until the proponents of these laws come up with a way to make it possible to enforce them without imposing undue burdens on everyone else.

  5. @John: Yup, agreed. But at least with the ADA, it's at least easier to tell who's in the protected class!