Attractiveness has a bigger impact on men’s socioeconomic success than women’s, study suggests
A recent study published in Social Science Quarterly has shed light on an intriguing aspect of our lives—how our physical appearance during our teenage years can impact our future social mobility. Researchers found that being perceived as attractive during adolescence can significantly boost a person’s chances of moving up the social ladder in terms of education, occupation, and income.
We’ve all heard the saying that “looks aren’t everything,” but this study suggests that they might matter more than we think when it comes to social mobility. While previous research has explored various factors influencing social mobility, such as education and family background, the role of physical attractiveness has often been overlooked. This study aimed to fill that gap by examining how physical appearance in adolescence might affect a person’s future opportunities and success.
“My co-author and I became interested in this topic because there is a popular notion that physically attractive individuals have an advantage over others, not only in terms of finding romantic partners, but also in terms of achieving other important outcomes, such as having higher incomes,” explained study author Alexi Gugushvili, a professor at the University of Oslo. “Yet, we couldn’t find many studies which would show if attractiveness really helps to improve individuals’ socioeconomic position when compared to their parents.”
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), which involved over 20,000 adolescents in the United States. They looked at information from three different waves of data collection, spanning from the mid-1990s to the late 2010s.
The researchers assessed the participants’ physical attractiveness using interviewer ratings obtained during the first wave of data collection when the respondents were aged 12-19. The attractiveness ratings ranged from “very unattractive” to “very attractive.” These ratings were used to gauge the participants’ physical attractiveness during their adolescent years.
To measure social mobility, the researchers compared the educational, occupational, and income attainment of these adolescents in adulthood with the socioeconomic status of their parents. This allowed them to determine whether individuals had moved up or down the socioeconomic ladder compared to their parents.
The researchers found that individuals who were rated as attractive or very attractive during their adolescent years were more likely to experience upward social mobility in terms of education, occupation, and income when they became adults. This effect was significant even after accounting for various factors such as socioeconomic background, cognitive abilities, personality traits, health, and neighborhood characteristics.
“Despite decades of research on how some individuals climb the social ladder in comparison to their parents, many important characteristics that can facilitate intergenerational social mobility are not well understood,” Gugushvili told PsyPost. “In the present study, we showed that being physically attractive helps individuals be better educated, have more prestigious jobs, and earn higher incomes when compared to their parents.”
The study also uncovered gender differences in the impact of physical attractiveness on social mobility. While physical attractiveness mattered for both males and females, it appeared to have a stronger influence on males’ educational and income mobility compared to females. For females, the effect of physical attractiveness on occupational mobility was less pronounced.
“The most surprising finding of the study was that physical attractiveness appears to matter more for males than females,” Gugushvili said.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. For instance, the researchers relied on interviewers’ assessments of physical attractiveness, which may not be a perfect measure. Additionally, factors influencing attractiveness and social mobility could be intertwined in complex ways. Future research could delve deeper into understanding the mechanisms through which physical attractiveness affects social mobility and explore whether these effects persist over time.
“I think it is particularly interesting to study how and why males benefit more from their looks than females, and if the same association also holds in countries other than the United States,” Gugushvili said.
The study, “Physical attractiveness and intergenerational social mobility“, was authored by Alexi Gugushvili and Grzegorz Bulczak.