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Do Beautiful People Really Make More Money?

A new study makes the case that people who are very unattractive actually make even more money than their beautiful colleagues, an “ugliness premium.”
Image: Portrait of actress Yvonne De Carlo brushing her hair in the mirror of a vanity table, for Universal Pictures, 1945.
Portrait of actress Yvonne De Carlo brushing her hair in the mirror of a vanity table, for Universal Pictures, 1945.Getty Images

It’s long been accepted as a sad fact of life: Not only do beautiful people get more dates, they also make more money.

Economists have puzzled over the so-called beauty premium. Although it made sense in some occupations — in customer service or sales, for example — it seemed to hold true in jobs that had nothing to do with looks.

But a new study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found something different, and perhaps cheering to the unappealing underdog: People who are not just unattractive but “very unattractive” actually make even more money than their beautiful colleagues, evidence of a potential “ugliness premium.”

The researchers looked at a sample of the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health and found that people who were rated as extremely unattractive by researchers visiting their homes earned significantly more at age 29 than those who were simply unattractive.

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Miss USA 2016, Deshauna Barber, Miss Universe 2016, Iris Mittenaere, and Miss Teen USA 2016, Karlie Hay, at New York Fashion Week.Monica Schipper / Getty Images

What’s more, while beautiful people did make more money, the researchers found the difference disappeared when they controlled for differences in health, intelligence and what psychologists call the “Big Five” personality factors (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience and neuroticism).

Looking at a sample of more than 20,000 people who were followed from their teens to late 20s, Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and his team found no evidence of discrimination, or that unattractive people choose different professions. But they did find evidence of other factors besides beauty at play.

Evolutionary psychologists believe the same traits we find beautiful — facial symmetry, for example — also reflect health and intelligence. And those are in turn relate to some Big Five personality traits like extraversion and conscientiousness. Those who rate higher on conscientiousness and extraversion, and lower on neuroticism, tend to earn more money.

Once they controlled for those factors, Kanazawa and colleagues found there was no beauty premium.

So beautiful people aren’t earning more because they’re beautiful, they’re earning more because they’re smart, healthy and well adjusted. That's ... comforting?

On the other end of the spectrum, Kanazawa says more research is needed to explain the premium for extreme ugliness. In the study, those who were viewed as very unattractive during their home visits tended to be more intelligent and have higher levels of education.

“We don't yet know why it is that very unattractive individuals are more intelligent and have greater education,” Kanazawa told NBC News BETTER. “We are the first ones to discover this exceptional pattern.”

Either way, it seems earnings more strongly correlated with intelligence than with looks. Bottom line, it seems like what you make has more to do with how your mind works than how many chins you are sporting.