How much of the attractiveness premium is really about grooming?

For women, most of it, at least according to Wong and Penner:

This study uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) to (1) replicate research that documents a positive association between physical attractiveness and income; (2) examine whether the returns to attractiveness differ for women and men; and 3) explore the role that grooming plays in the attractiveness-income relationship. We find that attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness, but this gap is reduced when controlling for grooming, suggesting that the beauty premium can be actively cultivated. Further, while both conventional wisdom and previous research suggest the importance of attractiveness might vary by gender, we find no gender differences in the attractiveness gradient. However, we do find that grooming accounts for the entire attractiveness premium for women, and only half of the premium for men.

Those results are consistent with my intuition, and here is some Ana Swanson discussion of the results.  That is via Samir Varma, and here is Allison Schrager on whether female scientists should try to look frumpy.


Arguably the difference from grooming has to be bigger for women - it is much more socially acceptable for them to wear make up which can make a rather more substantial difference in looks (just compare a bride with professionally done make up to her usual self next time you are at a wedding). Even so, attributing all of the beauty premium to grooming seems like a model gone awry (unless of course gym also counts as grooming and we are really talking about fat vs slim).

As for Swanson, even as a guy I apply three products to my face before 7am: face wash, shaving cream and and combo facecream/sunblock product (would be 4 without the combo). I flat out refuse to put gel in my hair though.

As a pretty average physical specimen who grossly overachieves as to partner quality (sorry for the immodesty), I would submit that for men it's less about tricks with light than it is for women. Instead it's about carrying oneself as if he's good at what he does, and is rather indifferent to the opinions of others. He can dress in rags or fineries, and the women will take note just the same.

Except shoes. Chicks notice shoes.

Mostly in agreement (ceteris paribus a better outfit / grooming will still help though). But as you might have noticed, the study was about work. *Not* about dating (or even SMV).

Okay, but you're not pretending this "attractiveness" bears no relation to SMV. Also I agree with your fat/skinny remark.

My crude prescription would be fitness/grooming for women, fitness/confidence for men.

As for me, in the morning if my face is a little puffy I'll put on an ice pack while doing stomach crunches. I can do 1000 now. After I remove the ice pack I use a deep pore cleanser lotion. In the shower I use a water activated gel cleanser, then a honey almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Then I apply an herb-mint facial mask which I leave on for 10 minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine. I always use an after shave lotion with little or no alcohol, because alcohol dries your face out and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then an anti-aging eye balm followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion.

Sorry couldn't resist.

I'd love to get your business card, bro.

I can't believe that AIG prefers Van Patten's card to mine.

I raced to write it, but Rock Lobster beat me....

Rock Lobster is actually Patrick Bateman? Who knew?

Hair product is essential, brah.

would grooming be confounding variable with conformism?

That and probably conscience, too.

Are you sure you don't mean "conscientiousness"? I'm sure you don't mean there's something immoral about not wearing makeup ...

You are right. That's what I get for relying on autocomplete too much...

That's what I was thinking. Well, actually I was thinking "Explain Seattle".

Speaking as someone that has been in the high technology field for forty years: I'd be happy if engineers just wore pants.

I'd be happy if they stopped wearing Hawaiian shirts.

The marketing department's adoption of casual Friday forced the engineers to raise the stakes.

Most engineers always wear casual clothes. Suit and ties have been out in engineering for about 2 decades. And inevitably, in every engineering organization, there's 20% of men who wear exclusively Hawaiian shirts. And another 10% who only wear them on Friday.

Not sure what's going on in their mind.

We are trying to achieve an inverse correlation between grooming and income. The engineering work always pays the same, but in the time it takes to put on pants I can complete three trades. It beings new meaning to the term naked put.

It's all about signalling - if you can dress sloppy you must be highly confident in your technical ability, as you don't care about being fired. But this only works in certain fields, like engineering. If you are a lawyer, sloppy dressing signals to your client that you don't care about their views (not all clients care about dress but some do, so even if you don't and your lawyer is dressed casually you can infer that he doesn't mind pissing off some of his clients, which you as the client should be worried about). So you have the common dynamic of a room of engineers in shorts with lawyers in 3 piece suits working on putting together a deal.

Similarly women spend more time grooming to signal their willingness to be subservient to men (joke!),

It's a reminder of that relaxing holiday a few years back. And if you have it in your wardrobe, you gotta wear it with pride. In addition, your wardrobe is not that large, since your wife has given up on dragging you to the suburban department store, due to the chronic nervous breakdowns you suffered from when there.

"due to the chronic nervous breakdowns you suffered from when there"

Anxiety attacks, you mean. I can see that.

Color me skeptical. I think it's more about attractive people having higher paying jobs where attractiveness is importent. Hence the more consistent emphasis on grooming. Pharmaceutical sales reps are expected to wear makeup everyday, back office IT is not.

Equivalently I'm sure a lot of the college wage premium could be explained by owning business casual wardrobe. That doesn't mean that buying a bunch of janitors khakis is going to turn them into accontants.

I'm going to have to back Doug here. The conclusions raised by the article seem too extreme.

Seriously, could anyone really believe that female attractiveness (even when measured indirectly) is dependent solely on their makeup expenditures?

Makeup and hair make a HUGE impact on female attractiveness. It's obvious when you look at great looking actresses who 'do ugly' for a role. Charlize Theron and Cameron Diaz are beautiful, but in 'Monster' and 'Being John Malkovich' they are not. Same people, different hair/makeup/clothes

I think a better example would be any of those BuzzFeed-style lists of celebrities caught in public without makeup while eating hotdogs (the ones where you won't believe #5, but when you finally see #5 you not only believe it but kind of expected it). Those show how much of a difference just hair, makeup, and clothes can make. If I remember, Theron gained a substantial amount of weight and wore fake teeth for that role, and her body language was unsettling. I didn't see Being John Malkovich.

Good point re BuzzFeed gotcha pics

True for the most part. But then there's Natalie Portman...

Trump's hair

Explains it all.

Hillary needs a

Hair Makeover.


Bernie's Bald

So He Shines.

Poorly done study....overall. Which is why it's in a 6th-tier journal no one has ever heard of.


People who earn more can afford more grooming, or are in professions where grooming is more important, and hence have no choice in the matter. Hence, reverse causality.

The study could have taken care of this problem by using the previous waves of interviews on these people as an instrument. I.e., the study is based on a survey carried out about 14,000 respondents, tracking them from HS out to 32 years of age. There are 4 waves in the survey. So they could have used their HS level of grooming as an instrument for their current level of grooming, since in HS they would not be working and their level of grooming would not be caused by their income or working conditions.

A simple fix, which they didn't bother with.

But of course...they were going for click-bait a 6-th tier journal of no significance...aimed at attracting "wonky", but dull-witted, journalists like Ana Swanson.

PS: Then again, the authors are sociologists, so they may simply not know about such a thing as reverse causality ;)

PPS: They are also arguing for a mediation effect, by which grooming mediates the impact of attractiveness on earnings. Except, that simply sticking in grooming in the same model and seeing what happens to not a sufficient test of mediation. Maybe in 1985 it was a sufficient test, but not today. They don't bother actually testing for mediation. So, again...sociologists ;)

I wish there were at least one "journalist" who reviews scientific articles, or any quantitative topic...who actually understood WHAT they were reading. Who actually has a basic background in econometrics and statistics. You don't need a lot: econometrics at a masters level would be sufficient.

That way, they wouldn't pick up junk-studies from junk-journals...and inundate the minds of lay people with dubious research results.

They can't find a single journalist, in the entire universe, who has taken a masters-level course in econ or stats? Well, maybe that is a dumb question. They wouldn't be journalists if that were the case. NVM.

Why would the journalists bother to critically evaluate click-bait if the effect was to reduce the total quantity of click-bait? Incentives 101.

Maybe both of you should become journalists and straighten things out. Market failure. But that doesn't happen.

If the point of the journalism market is to supply low-cost, high-interest articles that human beings like to look at, then the market is working perfectly.

+1 Good comments.

You must be good looking.

I must be...

Nah... He's just well groomed

> People who earn more can afford more grooming, or are in professions where grooming is more important, and hence have no choice in the matter. Hence, reverse causality.

If a self employed (hence no requirement) lawyer dressed like a hippy that lived in a dumpster, I would imagine a negative impact on their earnings potential. Alternatively dressing nice everyday (tie, slacks , etc...) was not required of me but was mentioned as a positive/desirable attribute when I was eventually promoted to supervisor. Furthermore, while supervisor, I used that as a heuristic to identify people who were willing to put in greater work. It was important for me to know who was just there for the paycheck and who actually "gave a shit".

In the army as well, lower individuals who wanted to be upwardly mobile in the ranks would put extra effort into shine their boots or press their uniforms above and beyond the requirement. It's a form of signalling.

Certainly. And I wouldn't argue that grooming isn't an important signal, and a good signal. And that indeed grooming plays an important role in getting a higher paycheck.

As is attractiveness. There are dozens of papers in psychology that demonstrate the effects of attractiveness on rewards. That's a pretty well established link.

This paper, however, is arguing that much of the attractiveness premium has to do with grooming. A perfectly fine argument to make, and intuitive.

The execution of the paper, however, is relatively poor. It's just a simple regression. While a good first step, it doesn't do much to prove the author's points because of the possibility of reverse causality between earnings and grooming, and because they don't actually test the mediation effect they propose (i.e. that much of the attractiveness premium comes from grooming).

But it's not just the execution, but also about figuring out the actual...effect size. I.e., how much does it actually matter? The potential for reverse causality here may over-state the effect by a lot.

PS: And of course there's the BS "discrimination" argument that will inevitably pop up from feminists, as the article linked to here demonstrates, which of course completely misses the point one dresses and takes care of themselves is an obvious and important signal for the rest of society. But, the authors of the paper can't help with that BS. Although, they were probably going for it.

In the army as well, lower individuals who wanted to be upwardly mobile in the ranks would put extra effort into shine their boots or press their uniforms above and beyond the requirement. It’s a form of signalling. Yes it is, and everyone else calls them bootlicking sycophants. I never promoted any of them.

On reverse causality ... if you have high income, it's easier to spend money on a designer wardrobe and lots of makeup. I remember times where I felt like I was breaking the bank just to get an OK suit for interviews. In fact, I think this is an important issue in helping people on welfare, or homeless people, to re-enter job markets. I don't know about everywhere, but in Ontario I know there are some allowances that some people can access to get job-ready clothing if they can demonstrate a real effort to get back into the job market.

Is there anything that you don't see as an argument for giving more of other people's money to bums?

That's a rhetorical question...don't bother replying.

There are plenty of reasons not to give every sort of benefit to people who have struggled for whatever reason. Just some basics.

But expecting them to show up in faded, stained clothes for a job interview is not one of them.

I'm not sure what kind of argumentation that's supposed to be to push me into the most extreme possible position when in fact I only expressed approval for a very pinpoint specific sort of support for a pinpoint specific reason ... and then tell me I shouldn't even answer.

I'm pretty sure the sort of jobs homeless people are applying for don't require suit and tie for an interview.

And if they do, there's plenty of places that have donated clothes for them to get.

Seems like Caplan's model of signalling conformity and conscientiousness fits better here than a grooming premium.

These are surely not independent variables. Attractive people have a greater incentive to be well-groomed. Likewise, so do people in the workforce as opposed to people on the dole.

I think the cause-effect arrow is backwards here. People who earn more are more likely to spend time and money on grooming.

Yes. Although, I'm not sure that better looking people have more incentive to be better groomed. They may have less, since they need it less. Ugly people need to take care of themselves more.

Either way, yes, this simple regression of theirs is not sufficient evidence. They need to account for endogeneity, which they have the ability to do since they have multiple observations per person pre-employment and during employment.

But being sociologists, the authors probably have no idea of what I'm talking about.

People play to their comparative advantage, which is why I claim that attractive people will spend more on grooming. Your premise implies that people will try to be more average. But everybody on this site knows that Average Is Over.

Not sure what "average is over" means, or if it means anything at all. Being repeated in this site over and over, probably diminishes its credibility :)

I may be wrong, I don't know. In my experience, a good looking person can wear or look anyway they want to and still be attractive, so I'm saying that they don't need to use make-up or grooming to be attractive, not that they want to look more average. They can't look more average. But ugly people sure would have more incentive to rely on grooming to make-up for their shortfall.

I could be wrong, of course.

People are more specialized. It's not enough to be good at something. You have to excel at SOMETHING or you will be left behind. He uses it in different ways too (an especially different application I think is linked to considerations of marriage pairing and inequality, but I'm not so sure...), but I think that's the basic logic. There will be nothing but crumbs left over for people who are average in everything, because they excel at nothing.

I'm not sure what he things about the "jack of all trades" sort of thing though. Specialists aren't good at integrating stuff in a way that's useful for good quality decision making, most of the time. A key input, but rarely will they direct the process.

'Not sure what “average is over” means, or if it means anything at all. Being repeated in this site over and over, probably diminishes its credibility'

It is the title of Prof. Cowen's latest book, as noted by the Amazon link at the upper left, under 'Our Books' for 'Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.' Among other things, it suggests that building favelas in America would be a desirable policy goal.

It is always so much fun reading comments here, truly.

Among other things, this web site is a way to increase the book revenues of the web site owners, as all book links (including what Prof. Cowen is reading/skimming/thinking about reading/got in the mail ) involve Amazon affiliate linking. Over the years, the general opinion among commenters is that the revenue generated is likely around an upper four figures - not large, but still enough to buy at least a few meals at restaurants that aren't in strip malls.

As for Prof. Cowen's credibility at coining easily repeated snippets that stand in for actual knowledge - let me refer to you 'The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better,' as possibly you did not realize why phrases using 'great stagnation' are also common here.

I posted a (somewhat negative) review of Tyler's book, Average is Over, on my blog:

"It is the title of Prof. Cowen’s latest book, as noted by the Amazon link at the upper left, under ‘Our Books’ for ‘Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation.’"

I know, but I don't pay attention to anything Prof. Cowen says. No offense to Prof. Cowen, of course.

"I posted a (somewhat negative) review of Tyler’s book, Average is Over, on my blog"

I know, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a meaningless catchphrase.

"People are more specialized. It’s not enough to be good at something. You have to excel at SOMETHING or you will be left behind."

If that's the theses of Tyler's book, then it is really an unoriginal and very old theses. Been said in one form or another by economists since 1776, and whole disciplines in human capital and labor economics and personnel economics which have written thousands of books and papers on the topic.

So as I suspected, and expected, it's pop-culture click-bait translations for lay people, of very old ideas.

> However, we do find that grooming accounts for the entire attractiveness premium for women, and only half of the premium for men.

This goes a great way toward explaining why women wear makeup and not men, since the returns are far greater for women. (though there is a trend of young South Korean males wearing makeup). I wonder what the rate of makeup use is for homosexual men?

Life is a photo opportunity.

I love Allison's forced argumentation as to why female scientists look like they just got out of bed: they do it on purpose! lol

I have another explanation: they're actually incapable of grooming. The same goes for male scientists. If her argument only applied to females, than how the hell does one explain male scientists? Walk on any campus and try to spot the STEM PhD students. It will not be hard. They look like the guys from Revenge of the Nerds.

Economists are somewhat better then other STEMs, since they actually have to have some form of human interaction and at least some interest in human beings.

But even there, you can almost certainly guess on day 1 of any PhD program which girls will drop out by the end of the year. It's the good looking and well-kept ones.

Looking like Revenge of the Nerds is not a "choice", Allison. It's actually a good predictor for whether or not they enter that field in the first place.

PS: And it reduces your chances of getting hired, if you do look good, because it will make the NERDS interviewing you uncomfortable.

It is a choice, they just need to conduct a scientific study of grooming factors after extensive research to determine the statistical ideal hair length and apply their findings.

We don't look at the people we are interviewing. Less than one in twenty people can get the answer right within the time allotted so if they happen to look good I wouldn't care. The people we extended offers too generally looked OK.

This study is really awful.

Both grooming and attractiveness are simply selected by the interviewer (with no particular instruction) from a five point scale and no effort is made to isolate the subject's inherent attractiveness unaffected by grooming. The author's remark on this point is simply that:

" 11 percent of the respondents who are seen as poorly groomed are rated attractive or very attractive, and 5 percent of respondents who are well-groomed are seen as unattractive) and variance inflation factors (VIF) for each of the variables suggests that collinearity is not a substantial problem in our models"

This is perfectly consistent with interviewers who basically judge the grooming and attractiveness questions the same way except in a small segment of people (<5%), say people who spilled food on themselves at lunch, they come apart. Or simply noise in the measurements.

I could go on but other commenters have pointed out plenty of other flaws.

Men are more easily fooled than women?

Or perhaps men are more attuned to "she's trying" whereas women are more attuned to "inherent attractiveness"? If so, that would be surprising because it's precisely the opposite of the stereotype that men are attracted to inherent attractiveness and women are more concerned with who's trying.

(I assume that much of the differential is driven by opposite-sex decision making ... especially with women, and especially for more attractive ones, they may still have a preference for beauty, so long as it's not more beautiful than them.)

WAPO had an article last week trying to explain women's attention to primping as a way to get paid more. Maybe, for professional women. I like this hypothesis more, because it explains the pre-women's lib primping obsession. Men can't grow muscles by primping. professional men buy expensive suits and shoes. Less work.

Personally, I'm more likely to scrutinize the work of women who obviously primp a lot, or who show carefully calculated "not unacceptable but just enough" cleavage, etc. Some are both competent and also calculated in trying to use their bodies to their advantage. But if I observe that a woman seems to be trying to use her body to her advantage in the workplace, that it is very plausible that she's doing so as a redeeming factor for inferior work. Hey, sometimes the scrutiny will prove that she's both beautiful and amazing. We men should be careful not to be manipulated by such things.

'I like this hypothesis more, because it explains the pre-women’s lib primping obsession.'

Except that it doesn't - pre-women’s lib, the primping was not for higher pay, it was normally part of the general necessity for women to get married. Ever heard the joke about getting a 'Mrs' degree? - though probably not as common as it was in the dawn of equal rights, when women were allowed to attend university in equal numbers to men. (Admittedly, that might not be considered a joke at a place like BYU or Liberty University.)

You clearly know almost nothing of college today and especially not Liberty or the BYUs.

Do not be a bigot.

Two thoughts. First, the attractiveness premium has also been found using measures of facial symmetry, which you cannot alter with grooming. Second, the measures of attractiveness/grooming in Add Health are not very good. They are interviewer-reported and I believe appear somewhere toward the end of the interview. Now I don't know to what extent one's assessment of physical attractiveness is affected by a person's behavior, but I doubt it's zero. So I'm very skeptical about this measure accurately picking up only physical attractiveness.

That's right. The attractiveness premium is in no way new, and as you say, "objective" attractiveness measures have been used to show it many times (there's probably a dozen papers using the facial symmetry measure)

They argument is that grooming is a mediator, full or partial. They don't really test for this in the paper, however. So, not a good paper.

That paper was obviously written by women! Only women would believe that "Looks" is mostly grooming. For most adults--especially in a time of rampant obesity--"Looks" is weight and physical health. If an adult is near their "best weight," they are already relatively quite good-looking. If they are healthy, and toned (gym), then they are near the top. As if make-up and hair could compensate for being overweight and under-exercised! And don't think men are fooled by breast augmentation! I'll give you a handy seven point test to determine if large breasts are artificial.

Yeah, these days pretty much not being obese is a good enough measure of attractiveness. Most people are good looking when they are skinny. Or at least, our standards have lowered so much, that that's all we can hope for.

We all like women who look like something the cat dragged in.

Comments for this post are closed