When economists take an interest in beauty

A while ago, I posted Sitting Pretty, about research that showed that attractiveness is an advantage for female chess players: male players tend to play riskier strategies when faced by an attractive female opponent.

Beauty, economics and society seems to be all the rage at the moment with a number of book published recently, among them the much-maligned “Honey-Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” by Catherine Hakim. It’s probably an area that most people think economists should leave well alone. Supply and demand for erotic capital? It undeniably all sounds a bit uncomfortable.

Similarly, reading about the various ways in which economic studies on beauty are conducted is also vaguely uncomfortable, particularly when you are brought up on the “don’t judge a book by its cover” motto. We all do make judgements about appearance, but at least most of us know that it’s a bit shallow. But when studying the effects of beauty, you have interviewers rating people’s appearances on an eleven-point scale, panels of raters going through high-school graduation photos, and teachers recording the attractiveness of seven and eleven year olds. Am I just particularly squeamish?

Anyway, it’s all in the name of furthering our knowledge about the economic impact of being beautiful. A recent study by Daniel Hammermesh and Jason Abrevaya at the University of Texas looks at the impact of beauty on happiness. They find, perhaps unsurprisingly that beauty raises happiness, and the effect is slightly stronger for women than for men. Most of this effect is indirect – beauty increases happiness because it tends to result in better incomes and marriage prospects.

The authors link this finding with the new trend for politicians to try to measure happiness and focus less on GDP, which leaves the reader with a word of caution: if differences in happiness depend so much on beauty, then how fruitful – or even ethical – is it to try to create the happiest society possible?

The full paper, “Beauty is the promise of happiness?” is here: http://www.nber.org/papers/w17327.pdf 

An earlier working paper is here: http://ftp.iza.org/dp5600.pdf

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