Does Perceived Physical Attractiveness in Adolescence Predict Better Socioeconomic Position in Adulthood?

A recent study published in PLOS ONE attempted to replicate experimental research done on the relationship between perceived physical attractiveness and success  in a number of life domains: these studies have shown that people regarded as attractive are perceived to have more positive character traits, greater self-esteem and self-confidence, and higher IQ compared to people rated as "unattractive"--a "beauty premium" that may explain why "attractive" people have better educational outcomes, an easier time gaining employment, higher incomes, and they are more likely to marry (and, for women, to marry partners of a higher social status).

Whereas most prior research used experimental designs or focused on select groups of people (which may produce stronger effects of attractiveness on outcomes than correlation studies based on observations of ‘real life’ situations), this study by Benzeval, Green and McIntyre uses a longitudinal research design to investigate "what role, if any, attractiveness might play, in the complex pathways between childhood and adulthood socioeconomic circumstances."  They examined the association between attractiveness at age 15 and education, employment status, occupation, marital status and partner’s social status, housing tenure (as a proxy for wealth) and household income at age 36--controlling for key confounders (parental socioeconomic background, and own self esteem, health, IQ, and gender).

Their results show that "people who were considered attractive as teenagers had higher socioeconomic positions as adults. The more attractive a child was rated at age 15, the higher their socioeconomic position at age 36. One exception was that attractiveness was only associated with staying in education for women and not for men."  The study found no association between attractiveness and self esteem.

The authors conclude that "the posited pathways between attractiveness and subsequent socioeconomic outcomes fall into three main explanations. First, gatekeepers to key socioeconomic opportunities may be influenced by the attractiveness of individuals. This is because cultural norms, stereotypes and expectations about attractiveness are likely to influence both the judgement and the treatment of attractive versus unattractive individuals [...] There is some evidence to support this pathway. For example, analyses of occupational earnings suggests that attractiveness does play a greater role in the wages of those in customer-orientated industries than in other kinds of occupations. Secondly, perceived attractiveness may lead to individuals having a greater sense of self worth and self esteem which in turn enhances their success in education, job and marriage markets. [...] However, we did not find an association at age 15 between self esteem and attractiveness, which suggests that these characteristics may not be a key mechanism or that our measure of self esteem in adolescence was inadequate and/or that a self esteem advantage has not developed at age 15. Finally, attractiveness may be correlated with other key determinants of adult SEP outcomes, in particular, intelligence and health, and therefore may not be a direct cause of the association but a confounder. Moreover, theories of mate selection suggest that attractiveness, health and intelligence may ‘coevolve’ because of assortative mating. This theory suggests that attractive women tend to choose intelligent men because of their ability to acquire resources (and vice versa), and their children inherit both characteristics. Similarly, it has been suggested that healthy men may choose attractive partners, which again may pass both characteristics on to children. However, in our study, while attractiveness, health and IQ were correlated, health and IQ did not attenuate the association with adult SEP after adjusting for parental SEP and education, suggesting that this may not be an important pathway. The evidence presented here suggests that the most likely pathway between attractiveness and health is the role of gatekeepers."

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Frederique Laubepin

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