Plastic Surgery Procedure Improve Your Looks Enough for a Better Salary


Valerie DeBenedette, Senior Medical Editor

Valerie DeBenedette is a science writer who specializes in keeping people informed about medicine and their health. She has more than 20 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and websites and has written about most areas of medicine. For many years, she was a contributing writer to Cosmetic Dermatology and to Drug Topics, the leading pharmacy trade magazine. She also was a contributing editor to The Physician and Sportsmedicine for many years. She has written about most fields of medicine, including dermatology, sportsmedicine, ophthalmology, general surgery, orthopedics, and women's health; as well as public health policy and the pharmaceutical industry. In addition, she is the author of Caffeine, a book for young people. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

November 19 2008

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Can looking good get you a bigger salary? While there appear to be a small benefit to having better-than-average looks, there is a larger penalty for having below-average looks, at least according to a classic paper on the economics of appearance. But amazingly—and completely counter intuitively—the benefit of looking above average and the penalty for looking below average were slightly larger for men than they were for women.

The paper, "Beauty and the Labor Market," by Daniel S. Hamermesh and Jeff E. Biddle, was published in 1994 and is still quoted in the popular media. One reason for its continued prominence is that very little research has been done on the subject of beauty and income or pay levels in the general public. "Other papers have been done, but nothing general on a random sample of Americans," said Dr. Hamermesh, who is the Edward Everett Hale Centennial Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Drs. Hamermesh and Biddle examined data collected in three large household quality of life surveys, two American and one Canadian. These surveys compiled information from interviews of more than 7,000 people. In all three surveys, interviewers visited the subjects in their homes and collected large amounts of data on their lives, and also added a judgment about their looks. The subjects were rated on a five-point scale from homely to handsome or beautiful. In all three studies, more than half the subjects were rated by the interviewers as average looking.

When the numbers were crunched, the study found that when all else is equal, wages of people with below-average looks are lower than those of average-looking people. The study also found that there is a penalty for looking below average that is less than the premium (or benefit) of looking above average. In other words, being below average drops your income further than being above average boosts it.

Bear in mind that fewer people in the three surveys, which were conducted between 1971 and 1981, were judged by the interviewers to be below average in looks than were judged to be above average in looks. This comes out to a sort of "Lake Woebegon" effect, like the mythical town where all the children are above average.

The finding about men's looks was the biggest surprise of the 1994 study, and it is one that does not get the attention it deserves since it is widely assumed by the public that women's looks are more important than those of men. Drs. Hamermesh and Biddle noted that the absence of differences in income by gender based on looks was surprising.

But how does this translate into the real world? Does it make sense to have plastic surgery to look better strictly for the extra cash it might bring in? Not necessarily, said Dr. Hamermesh. A separate study of the use of cosmetics and beauty enhancing goods (i.e., nice clothes) and labor statistics in China conducted by Dr. Hamermesh and two colleagues found that while beauty does raise a woman's earnings (again, when all other factors are equal), improving looks only has a marginal effect. "The effect on your beauty was minimal and effect on your earnings was also minimal," Dr. Hamermesh pointed out.

Dr. Hamermesh, who is a frequent contributor to the Freakonomics Blog run by the New York Times, lectures occasionally on the role of beauty in employment, and income. He has published other works on the effects of appearance on economists—a group not known for their looks, he noted—and lawyers, but no other works on the general population. Several studies by others have shown that height and weight have an affect on income levels, he noted. He is about to write a book on the subject of looks and income, he said, but is not doing any further research in the area.