Saturday, 13 August 2022

Is there a premium for very unattractive workers?

The beauty premium has been widely established in the literature on labour economics. There is a whole book by Daniel Hamermesh on the topic, entitled Beauty Pays (which I reviewed here). However, this 2018 article by Satoshi Kanazawa, Shihao Hu, and Adrien Larere (all London School of Economics and Political Science), published in the journal Economics and Human Biology (ungated version here), presents a more nuanced view. Kanazawa highlight this earlier article (ungated version here) by Kanazawa and Mary Still (University of Massachusetts, Boston), and summarise the findings of that earlier article as:

...while unattractive individuals earned less than others, very unattractive workers always earned more than unattractive workers, sometimes more than average-looking or even attractive workers, seemingly contrary to previous findings in the economics of beauty.

The issue may be that earlier studies group together unattractive and very unattractive workers into a single category, and therefore may fail to identify a difference between the two groups. In the 2018 article, Kanazawa et al. look at this very-unattractiveness premium using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), including in their sample around 10,000 people who participated in all of the first four waves of the study. Rather than looking at labour market outcomes, Kanazawa et al. looked at 'mate value', measured as:

...whether the respondent was currently married (1 if currently legally married, 0 if currently single, excluding cohabitation) or cohabiting with a partner (1 if currently cohabiting, excluding marriage, 0 if currently single) at 29.

Attractiveness was measured on a scale of 1 to 5, measured closest to the time when their current relationship began (although they are not clear on how they treat the attractiveness of people who are not currently in a relationship). Comparing 'mate value' by attractiveness in their basic analysis, Kanazawa et al. find that:

...very unattractive respondents - both men and women - were always more likely to be married or cohabiting than unattractive respondents, sometimes more than average-looking or attractive respondents (except for cohabitation for men, when physical attractiveness was measured at 16 or at match), but this pattern was much stronger for marriage than for cohabitation and among women than among men.

Having re-confirmed the results from the earlier study, Kanazawa et al. then try to tease out the mechanism underlying this finding. They reason that intelligent men are attracted to very unattractive women:

According to the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis (Kanazawa, 2010) or the intelligence paradox (Kanazawa, 2012), more intelligent individuals are more likely to acquire and espouse “unnatural” preferences and values that go against their evolutionary design. Since men are evolutionarily designed to value physical attractiveness in their mates... more intelligent men may be more likely to prefer to mate with very unattractive women.

I'm not sure that I buy into this theoretical argument [insert duty-bound statement about my marriage being a counter-example to Kanazawa et al.'s theory]. Nevertheless, they do find some modest support for their theory:

...very unattractive women’s spouse or partner always earned significantly more than those of unattractive women except when physical attractiveness was measured at 17... Further, very unattractive women’s spouse or partner earned significantly more than those of average-looking women when physical attractiveness was measured at 29... in sharp contrast, none of the regression coefficients were statistically significant in the same direction among men.

However, there are a couple of problems here. First, Kanazawa et al. don't have a measure for the spouse's intelligence, so they are using earnings as a proxy. So, it may be that other mechanisms underlie the relationship they find wherein higher income men tend to marry very unattractive women. However, a more subtle problem is that the analysis is based on less than 300 people who were rated as very unattractive (at most - the number rated as very unattractive varied based on the age at which attractiveness was measured), and less than 500 people who were rated as unattractive, out of a total of around 10,000 people (this is obvious only from the supplementary materials to the article, as these numbers are not reported in the article itself). It wouldn't take much measurement error here to generate almost any result at all. In fact, Kanazawa et al. note that, in the earlier Kanazawa and Still article:

The mean [inter-rater agreement] for unattractive, about average, attractive, and very attractive individuals ranged from 0.6352 to 0.8280 for women, and from 0.6341 to 0.8527 for men. For very unattractive individuals, however, it ranged from 0.0180 to 0.1398 for women, and from 0.2184 to 0.3890 for men.

So, the proportion of evaluators who agreed on who was very unattractive was very low, especially for women, and it is only for women that Kanazawa et al. find the relationship with spouse' earnings. Low agreement suggests that measurement error in who is evaluated as very unattractive is very high. It would be helpful if Kanazawa et al. had provided an evaluation of how stable the attractiveness ratings were over time. That is, were very unattractive people consistently rated as very unattractive, or was it essentially random? Without knowing that, it is hard to take their results too seriously. With that in mind, I think it's going to take a lot more to make a convincing argument that there is a very-unattractiveness premium.

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