The age-old phrase "beauty is only skin deep" may not hold true in terms of your wages—and other benefits for your wallet. A number of studies examining the relationship between beauty and money show that more attractive people not only earn higher incomes, they also work more productively and profitably for their companies, obtain more loan approvals, and negotiate loans with better terms than their less-attractive counterparts.
Most recently, a study published earlier this year in Applied Financial Economics looked at the role of attractiveness in selling real estate. The study, co-authored by Sean Salter, a professor of finance at Middle Tennessee State University, culled thousands of real estate agents' photos from an online database and asked outside observers to rate each person's attractiveness on a scale of one to 10, with one representing "very unattractive" and 10 representing "very attractive."
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The researchers found that more-attractive agents sell properties at higher prices than less-attractive agents. This can be attributed to a "halo effect," in which more-attractive individuals are perceived as possessing greater intelligence or capability, Salter says. "Let's say you're driving down the road and you see the agent on the billboard, and it's an attractive picture," he explains. "Your first impression is that this is an attractive person. So before you even hire this person to sell your home, you already have a positive impression of that person in your mind."
However, the study also found that it takes more-attractive listing agents significantly longer to sell a house. Salter believes this might be because a higher asking price means it can take longer to find the right buyer. "There's a clear trade-off here," Salter says. If you enlist the help of a more-attractive listing agent, you have a better chance of selling your home at your desired price, but your house will have to sit on the market for a longer period of time.
Additionally, Salter's study concluded that more-attractive agents take fewer listings and make fewer sales. This leads Salter to believe that attractive real estate agents use their beauty as a crutch. "By the fact that they're taking on fewer listings, it appears these agents are using their beauty to supplement their capabilities in other areas, rather than complement them," he says.
Still, the bottom line: Enlisting the help of a beautiful real estate agent could boost your home's selling price.
Salter's study drew on research conducted by Daniel Hamermesh, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, who has studied the role appearance plays in the workplace. According to his research, someone with below-average looks earning about $20 per hour over a 40-year career would stand to earn $1.46 million, whereas a person with above-average looks would earn $1.69 million.
When broken down by gender, Hamermesh's research shows that men's looks matter more than women's in terms of salary. One possible explanation for this, Hamermesh says, is that not all women work. "Even now, [the percentage] of women who are working is well below that of men," he says. (According to 2010 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 58.6 percent of women work versus 69.3 percent of men.) Another explanation is that if people are discriminated against in the workplace for their looks, a greater number of less-attractive women than men will opt to stay at home, "where there's no penalty for being ugly," says Hamermesh.
His research also concludes that unattractive people find entry into certain occupations more challenging than good-looking people. Some studies suggest that law and politics are two fields that place an emphasis on physical beauty. Another study found evidence that looks matter significantly if you want to be an NFL quarterback. "Like any other skill that you don't have, if you're bad-looking, avoid the occupations where it matters," says Hamermesh.
What can people do to boost their chances of getting a good salary if they're not attractive? For starters, they shouldn't try to alter their physical appearance, according to Hamermesh. One study, titled "Ugly Ducklings Become Ugly Ducks," had observers rate pictures of people when they were 10 years old and then when they were 50, and found a strong correlation in beauty ratings—suggesting that you're pretty much stuck with the looks you're born with. Research on plastic surgery supports this theory. A study by Soohyung Lee of the University of Maryland—College Park studied Koreans who had received plastic surgery and found that undergoing such operations might make you feel better about yourself, but they aren't a good investment in terms of improving your wages.
Studies also show that less-drastic changes, like dressing better, taking care of your hair, buying nicer clothing, and applying makeup have almost no effect on beauty. "We can't change our looks much," Hamermesh says. Instead, he suggests emphasizing your skills: "Take advantage of your brains, your musical ability, your physical strength, your nice personality—whatever it is you have that sets you apart."