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

Published: Thursday, Dec. 26 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Good looks provide advantage in life, from better grades to higher wages. In spite of stories about women being fired for being too good looking, a study says the advantages outweigh the negatives.

Viktor Čáp, Getty Images/iStockphoto

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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

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