The 'Ugliness Premium': Being Unattractive Can Mean Higher Wages

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus

Beauty's only skin-deep; ugly gets the top salary. CSA-Images/Sorbetto/Getty
Beauty's only skin-deep; ugly gets the top salary. CSA-Images/Sorbetto/Getty

If you aren't a stunning beauty, hopefully you're ugly. Really ugly. That's because results of a new study say that very unattractive people earn more money than those who are average-looking or even attractive.  

The study, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, turns on its head years' worth of research on appearance that has consistently said if you're pretty or handsome, the world is yours. You'll earn more money than your average-looking counterparts, be viewed as more trustworthy, have stellar persuasive powers, be more likely to win a political election and, of course, have no trouble finding a mate. Conversely, if you're ugly, studies said, you'll earn less money than the beautiful people and be offered worse mortgage deals, among other insults.


Researchers Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science and Mary Still of the University of Massachusetts in Boston analyzed a nationally representative data sample from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). This study has been regularly following a cohort of roughly 15,000 people starting in 1994, when they were adolescents in grades 7 to 12 and following up with them every few years.

The Add Health interviewers rated participants' physical attractiveness at every interview stage using the same five-point scale, where 1 means the participant is "very unattractive" and 5 equals "very attractive." "Ratings of physical attractiveness by human judges are known to be highly correlated with measures of bilateral facial symmetry by a computer program and are intersubjectively stable," write the study authors. The respondents were also asked for their gross earnings the previous year.

Kanazawa and Still's findings show that on the surface, data may appear to reveal a pretty face equates to higher pay. But if you dig deeper, taking into account people's health, intelligence and basic personality, it's often the total package that influences salary.

Specifically, the Add Health data showed people who were healthier, smarter (but not necessarily better educated), more conscientious, more extroverted and less neurotic earned a lot more dough than those who weren't. Some of these fit-smart-conscientious-extroverted-less neurotic folks were also easy on the eyes. But they weren't being paid extra for their good looks, but rather for the other factors. However, the authors note that the more physically attractive respondents tended to also be more open, conscientious, agreeable and less neurotic, perhaps because they've had positive feedback about their looks since childhood.

In addition, the two researchers discovered a nuance to the "ugliness penalty." Most previous studies on the advantages of your looks used just one "below-average" category for everyone whose visage was considered less attractive. The Add Health study's five-point physical attraction scale included two "ugly" categories — "unattractive" and "very unattractive." That turned out to be important, as Kanazawa and Still found that the "very unattractive" people (who made up just 2.7 percent of the respondents) actually earned more money than every other category, including the one for people judged "most attractive" (8 percent of the group) as well as just "unattractive."

The study authors postulate that the very unattractive people earned the most because they were more intelligent and better-educated than people in the other categories. But the researchers are not sure why this is so, especially since other studies have shown a positive link between intelligence and physical attractiveness. "More research is clearly necessary to explore the unique nature of very unattractive individuals," the authors write.