Beauty

“I see the girls walk by; dressed in their summer clothes,
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.”

It’s autumn and she’s seated on a train, but still the above lyrics of Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black ring true. She’s beautiful, in that pristine Nordic way – vast eyes imbued with a fjord-like blueness and a soft, feminine face, caressed down to her shoulders by locks of blonde hair.

I immediately hate this woman.

Her middle-class voice betrays a certain contentedness; a tacit pride in the decent hand life has dealt her. She is probably of the ilk that pollutes my Facebook-newsfeed, immaculately adorned with friends, always at restaurants, always abroad, surrounded by other photogenic people, parties, group selfies. You get the picture. Literally.

I wonder what it is like to be this woman?

The world must be kind to her. Everywhere she roams, it greets her with a smile. By virtue of her beauty, she must view the world through rose-tinted spectacles. She’s probably never tasted alienation or that species of bitterness sown through years of undesirability.

Everybody suspects this; pretty people, tall people, symmetrical people – we treat these individuals more favourably, both unconsciously and consciously. Academics have even coined the term “beauty premium” to describe the additional wages earned by those who are more beautiful.

helen-of-troy-1863

Helen of Troy , considered the most beautiful woman in the world in Greek mythology, probably would have attracted higher wages if she had a job.

In a paper entitled Why Beauty Matters, behavioural economists Markus Mobius and Tanya Rosenblat (2006) investigated the reasons behind this beauty premium – why do pretty people earn more? Are they simply better at their jobs? Or do we assume they’re better at their jobs than ugly people, purely because they’re fit?

The researchers split subjects into two broad groups – workers and employers. Workers were paid to solve as many maze tasks as possible in a space of 15 minutes. The more mazes solved, the higher their productivity.

Employers had to make an estimate of workers’ maze-solving ability and set them a corresponding wage. Employers were permitted varying interaction with workers. Some only saw a worker’s résumé, others got to see a passport photograph. Some got to conduct a 5-minute telephone interview (either with or without a photograph), while others were allowed a face-to-face interview.

Obviously only those employers presented a photo or conducting a face-to-face interview could determine whether someone was beautiful or not. (That said, perhaps some people have sexy accents, causing one to infer that they have good looks too? The authors did not explicitly test this).

Confirming the already widely demonstrated beauty premium, being beautiful was associated with significantly higher wages. The lucky, gorgeous bastards. A one standard deviation increase in beauty corresponded to a 12-13 % increase in wages (with a 17% increase for workers allowed face-to-face interviews with employers).

Moreover, increased worker beauty had no effect on wages when employers were given just a résumé, intimating a direct visual effect of beauty, rather than some other variable.

So, at least one mechanism at play in the beauty premium is that employers simply assume that beautiful workers are more productive than ugly workers. For instance, Jennifer Lawrence would be assumed to outperform me. Of course, in actuality, the beauty of workers had no effect on their performance at the maze-task. To put it bluntly, the employers assumed incorrectly.

Yet, in the condition where employers could not see workers’ faces but only conversed via telephone-interview, beauty again seemed to have a positive effect on wages. How could that be? It’s surely difficult to tell whether someone’s fit or not over the phone? Is the bloke trying to sell you double-glazing down the phone annoying? Definitely. But is he physically attractive? God knows?

The researchers surmised that beauty correlated with communication and social skills. This in turn causes employers, via purely oral means, to have a more positive impression of pretty people’s productivity. (Apologies for the tacky alliteration).

Beautiful people are also more confident. In the aforementioned maze-solving tasks, beautiful people tended to rate future task-performance more highly than ‘uglier’ people. The cocky, gorgeous bastards.

In summary then, beautiful, attractive people, like the dashing blonde woman on my train, benefit from a triple-whammy of factors[1]:

  • They are perceived by others to have higher abilities
  • They have better oral communication skills
  • They are more confident

And these three factors may all interact with one another in a virtuous circle. The kernel of truth hypothesis suggests that teachers (wrongly) expect more physically attractive pupils to have greater academic potential. This leads teachers to prioritise these kids’ learning, at the expense of others. Such special treatment, in turn, boosts attractive kids’ confidence and social/communication skills. The quintessential self-fulfilling prophecy.

Did I mention I hate beautiful people?

It can’t be healthy to harbour such resentment to beautiful people. It’s unfair too. After all, they probably have their own neuroses, their own insecurities, their own skeletons in the closet. Maybe they tire of people judging them by their facial features instead of by the contents of their brain. Depression, emotional pain and loneliness also do not discriminate based on looks.

Jealousy by Edvard Munch.

Jealousy by Edvard Munch.

But, how does one cope? Everyone else out there is experiencing life, holding each other’s hands, rejoicing in the dizzying highs and lows of romance. They’re having a party and I’m not invited.

Indifference is the key here. Rather than resent other people, I just don’t care anymore. Periods of prolonged loneliness or singledom have now rendered me anaesthetised to real life and real people.

Normal people are just too different: an alien species that I scrutinise from afar. Sure, I interact with this species, I pretend to be one of its members and I even have friends of this species. But I know nothing of their talk of wives, husbands, partners, one-night stands, house parties, bars, nightclubs, ‘pulling’, dating.

Of course, I have an abstract understanding of these terms, but remain unfamiliar to the raw subjective experience of such concepts. But it doesn’t matter: I’m not like them; I’m not destined for the same things as them.

After a while, beautiful girls evoke nothing in me: no arousal, no jealousy, no resentment. I see them walk by, dressed in their summer clothes, but I no longer have to turn my head.

Plus the weather in the UK is crap, so summer clothes are invariably the same as winter clothes!

 
[1] Or, to adopt the academic terms, the beauty premium is mediated by three transmission channels.
 

References

Mobius, M. M., & Rosenblat, T. S. (2006). Why beauty matters. The American Economic Review, 222-235.

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