By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/7/2005 8:20:39 PM ET 2005-04-08T00:20:39

Researchers at the nation’s central bank have confirmed what you always suspected: If you want to make more money, it helps to be tall, slender and good-looking.

A study just published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis  examines research done by economists over the past decade and concludes that good looks, above-average height and normal-range weight actually might boost productivity at the office, perhaps by increasing confidence and improving communication skills.

But sadly, the researchers acknowledge that anti-ugly discrimination might also be at work. (Uglism?)

“We don’t draw a policy recommendation on this,” said study co-author Michael Owyang, a senior economist at the St. Louis Fed. He hastened to add that his research does not reflect any official position the Fed might have on height, weight or good looks.

A number of economic research papers have shown that “there is some relationship” between physical characteristics and financial success, Owyang  said.

“It could be coming from productivity, and it could be coming from discrimination — at this point we just don’t know,” he said.

But he suggested some ways that a pleasing physical appearance might add what economists call “unmeasured productivity” to the labor force.

For example lawyers, who are called upon to deal extensively with the public whether they are building up their clientele or trying to persuade a jury, might be more effective if their appearance is in line with society’s beauty standards.

“There is some evidence to suggest that if you have to interact more with the public you are rewarded for your physical appearance with higher compensation,” Owyang said in a telephone interview. “That is one of the reasons movie stars are attractive. That’s who people want to go see. Those stars are more bankable.”

The research on pulchritude and pay is not new, nor is it without its own problems. How, after all, can researchers objectively measure beauty to determine whether beautiful people are also better earners?

Economics professor Daniel Hamermesh, who has written half-a-dozen academic papers on the topic, contends it is “very, very simple."

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"There is tremendous agreement about beauty," he said.

Owyang agreed, saying that if 99 out 100 people ranked a person as good-looking, it is fair to say that "society" thinks that person is attractive. "And if society puts a premium on physical appearance, that person is likely to get the premium."

In Hamermesh's studies researchers typically are asked to rate the looks of their interview subjects as average, above average or below average. The results are then compared with other variables including pay.

In one relatively well-known study, Hamermesh and co-author Jeff Biddle had four observers (two male and two female) look at pictures of students who graduated from a certain unidentified law school and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was considered “homely” and 5 was “strikingly handsome or beautiful.”

After averaging out the ratings, the authors found evidence of a “beauty premium” for attorneys that increased with age, particularly for lawyers who graduated from “Law School X” in the 1970s. Five years after graduation, male lawyers with an above-average “beauty rating” earned about 10 percent more than their below-average counterparts. After another 10 years the beauty premium had grown to to 12 percent.

The premium was smaller for lawyers who graduated in the 1980s, a fact the authors speculated might have been due to a tighter job market at the time they graduated.

While Hamermesh said observers generally come to similar conclusions on questions of beauty, some of his research also suggests problems with trying to grade good looks on a curve. In a study of 853 Han Chinese women rated by Chinese researchers in Shanghai, 35 percent were rated above average while only 1 percent were rated below average or ugly.

Research on the correlation between height, weight and wealth tends to be more straightforward because that data can be objectively measured.

One study showed that women who were obese as measured by their body mass index earned wages that were 17 percent lower than women within the recommended weight range for their height, according to the St. Louis Fed summary. The obesity penalty was largest for white women, although white men also suffered a penalty for being fat.

Obesity might affect productivity either by correlating with poor health or a lack of self-confidence, so lower wages might be appropriate, Owyang said. Yet discrimination also seemed to play a role, said the research by Owyang and co-author Kristie Engemann, a senior research associate at the St. Louis Fed.

Another study focused on height found that every inch of extra height is worth about 1.8 percent in additional wages. This height premium appears to be etched in stone relatively early in life. Boys who were taller at age 16 consistently earned more as adults, according to yet another study.

The researchers also cited a survey by journalist Malcolm Gladwell showing that the average chief executive is 3 inches taller than the average man. While a typical American male stands 5-foot-9, Gladwell’s study found that about one-third of CEOs are 6-foot-2.

Owyang said the research on the economic impact of various physical characteristics is interesting but limited and inconclusive.

“The research is difficult because you need the data,” he said. “This kind of data isn't readily available. Census doesn’t tell you whether (people) are attractive or not.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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