Tattoos and time preferences

Survey and experimental evidence documents discrimination against tattooed individuals in the labor market and in commercial transactions. Thus, individuals’ decision to get tattooed may reflect short-sighted time preferences. We show that, according to numerous measures, those with tattoos, especially visible ones, are more short-sighted and impulsive than the non-tattooed. Almost nothing mitigates these results, neither the motive for the tattoo, the time contemplated before getting tattooed nor the time elapsed since the last tattoo. Even the expressed intention to get a(nother) tattoo predicts increased short-sightedness and helps establish the direction of causality between tattoos and short-sightedness.

That is from a new paper by Bradley J. Ruffle and Anne E. Wilson, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.


This is the least surprising thing I have ever read in my life.

This made me laugh out loud.

I know. Finally -- a bigotry everyone is on board with!

Multiple and excessive tattoos is an indication of a mental health issue. Why would you hire them???

I'm more disgusted by someone overweight. Not only a physical health issue, but could be other mental health issues there too

It corresponds well with my personal experience with the tattooed, anyway.

Tattoos aren't a protected class so it is legal to discriminate based on the contents of your skin.

But how long until the tattooed are a protected class by law, or by threat of Twitter cancellation?

You ... you ... tattoo-ist!

A tattoo reminds one of his shortsightedness

Almost everyone at my workplace has tattoos except for the owner and higher level management. A lot of the women have nose rings and gauged ears.

It seems to be practically universal among millennials. I wonder if Generation Z react against this, seeing it as a corny trend of the previous generation (like tribal tats are seen now)? Or perhaps they will take the trend to the next level with more extreme body modification?

It would be interesting to see if the variation by income status was different for whites vs. blacks and latinos.

I've bet anything that with blacks and latinos they are unquestionably a signal of low SES and'/or gang membership. Whereas with whites, you would see no such correlation up until very high income levels. Among whites, tattoos don't mean anything except maybe your a liberal. Poor people might have them somewhat more, but even upper-middle-class hipsters and silicon valley techies have them, just for fun. The only white people who eschew tattoos on other white people are very old fashioned or very conservative.

"The only white people who eschew tattoos on other white people are very old fashioned or very conservative."

Absolutely guilty as charged -- I don't even like to wear clothing with writing on it. And Paul Fussell would no doubt locate my origins in the insecure, recently-rural midcentury middle class if he knew my mother discouraged ear-piercing because "it's what gypsies do."

But there's something else ... I'm still waiting to see the first tattoo that enhances somebody's looks; the first where the quote from Rumi or Ziggy or whomever is worth my reading not once but every time I look at you; also the first where the colors aren't all muddy; the first that looks well when the skin has become leathery with age; the first where it is obvious at a glance what the picture is supposed to be, especially amid all the other pictures; the first where your tattooed "sleeves" don't fight with the pattern on the actual sleeves of your hipster-ish vintage floral shirtwaist dress, etc.

I've seen some really nice tattoos. Right now there is this whole DIY thing going on where everyone's getting DIY tattoos of like three dots or a ball and a stick or something. But back in the 1990s there was sort of an art nouveau revival in tattoo art.


There's one about a quarter down the page that achieves the "The Lady of Shalott" effect best. I love William Morris at least if not the entirety of art-nouveau (not keen on that "art glass" that often turns up on Antiques Roadshow) so I applaud the general inspiration. And I guess getting a tattoo is a whole lot easier and instantly-gratifying than learning to embroider or bead or needlepoint or whatever, ways women have traditionally gilded the lily.

Plus you have the advantage that when you go to interview with Hazel, she'll know straight away by your unconventional mode of expression that you're her "people." Who needs conventions anyway? ;-)

Social separation of ethnic groups in the US doesn't seem that high. Blacks and Latinx still have hipsters etc. Probably the reverse holds, if anything.

Looking at his tweets, Trump must have a million tattoos underneath those boring suits he likes to wear.

“Short-sited and impulsive”
On the flip-side, tats are a pretty solid swipe right on Tinder!

the best thing about tats is they look sooooooo good after 30 years

In 30 years you are old and ugly and not participating in the dating market anyways, though.

My sister got a tattoo on her ankle of a fairy sitting on a mushroom when she was about 20, now, 30 years later, you can barely see it. She probably is still a hot date though, judging by her facebook page.

First the article:

Then: "French et al. (2016) employ a U.S. and an Australian dataset from national longitudinal surveys that each include a single, binary-response question about whether the respondent has a tattoo. The tattooed report higher rates of unemployment and lower earnings than the non-tattooed. However, once the authors control for educational attainment, social status, occupational, lifestyle and health-related characteristics, the differences become small and nonsignificant."

And then: "We recruited registered Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) users to participate in our 30-minute study."

Not so many people with high educational achievement, employed and enjoying high social status participate in Amazon MTurk surveys. Thus, Amazon Mturk is just a window for the preferences of the poor. Then, the article may well frame the conclusions as "poor individuals decision to get a tattoo..."

+1. Thread winner. Without population info, the abstract is misleading.

There is population info on the article on Table 2/Panel A - Socio-demographic characteristics.

Albeit, the unemployment rate of survey respondents is between ~13% (no tattoos) and ~14-16%(with tattoos), while the US average is ~3.7% now and has been below 5% since 4 years ago. So, the Amazon MTurk survey respondents are representative...of what?

But this just means that the study may not be generalizable to the upper classes. However, by truncating the sample, we are quite sure there is no problem of composition bias -- such as mixing older rich who are tattoo averse with poor, tattoo loving poor. Within that demographic (that already tends to have higher discount rates on average) this result seems to be quite strong.

Eh, you probably find they have other qualities as well. And in any case, one person's short time preference is another's dynamism, and one person's impulsiveness is another's animal spirits and healthy attitude to risk.

Impulsiveness and willingness to take risk are not the same thing.

Close enough. Close as being "short time horizons" in willingness to get a tat and more generally.

The sample set is polluted with meth heads who know nothing but impulse.

People are always claiming social scientists don't uncover truth, but a lot of time they come up with completely plausible results like these, especially if there is no political dogmatic threat to their careers.

Go ahead, try to piggyback, ride the coattails.


An interesting related factoid:

"More evidence of YouTube rightwing radicalization. In a study of >79 million YouTube comments, @manoelribeiro et. al. shows that a high % of people who now comment on Alt-Right videos used to comment exclusively on IDW or Alt-lite videos."

Ya think?

"However, once the authors control for educational attainment, social status, occupational, lifestyle and health-related characteristics, the differences become small and nonsignificant." In other words, folks with tattoos have low educational attainment, low social status, low occupational status, and poor lifestyle and health-related characteristics, thus affirming the results of the study.

+1 Thanks for pointing out.

But didn't Mark Penn in his book Microtrends claim that people with tattoos have higher than average income?

I've seen a massive increase in tattoos across all education levels in the last 10 years. It could be a bigger increase among lower levels, but there's no question that everyone is getting more tattoos.

When tattoos becoming common was still fairly new I saw a someone refer to them as the bar codes of criminality.

I think there are a couple of important mitigating or confounding factors. Are the tattoos, visible, or hidden, or in between? George Schultz had a Princeton tiger tattooed on his butt. No one would ever see that (except intimate people). In contrast some Latino and white supremacist gang members get tattoos on their face. And some tattoos can be either visible or hidden e.g. ones on your arm or upper arm.

The impulsivity or short-sightedness of those groups of people probably varies.

And there are a few occupations where a tattoo may have positive or at least non-negative effects on income: rappers, popular musicians, maybe artists in general. Those are not high-paying occupations in general but they may attract workers who are hoping for the one-in-a-million payoff of becoming a superstar.

Tatoos, their number and placement, are a good indicator of a hot date, according to a data scientist who hacked a dating site to determine characteristics of the other party of the female persuasion.

Two or more tattoos is the cutoff.

Two or more tattoos is the cutoff. The cutoff for what? Too hot to handle? Too used to handle?

Two hot to handle for thee, but not for he.

It's a way of costly signalling one's dedication to the thug life. Any dork can selectively dress like a thug one minute and a corporate drone the next, a tattoo shows you're for real.

Tattoos are one dimensional, and today can be made with an inkjet printer. They are often not visible as well.

I am working on creating a business using a 3D printer to create a 3D printed fixable tattoo for any part of the skin or body part.

From my market research, men choose to have their 3D printed tattoo longer and harder, and women their 3D tattoo softer and more pliable.

The wonders of science employed to enhance the quality of life.

If you think about it, I think you will realize that all tattoos, like everything else in the physical world, are three-dimensional.

That means there is no one dimensional space,

Except in math. Maybe we'll find an imaginary number with it.

One-dimensional tattoos are technically "Marcuse tattoos."

I think the authors also need to control for geography. I made a joke graph of likelihood of visible tattoos by income decile. Overall showed a decline as decile increased and Seattle showed a straight line. I'm in tech and tattoos are incredibly common. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a designer without several.

This is funny because we recently interviewed someone with blue hair and a tattoo for an engineering job here, and everyone thought that those things counted in her favor. I mean, I literally walked into the room, saw that she had blue hair and tattoos and instantly liked her. The fact that she was highly experienced and maybe even overqualified was just icing. Maybe when you're working in a high-tech startup type environment, tattoos and blue hair signal an openness to unconventional ideas.

Tats and piercings repulse me, but a woman with thick, silky hair can look pretty good with one of those blue or purple dye jobs. It only works with black hair, maybe blond or silver, but not red or brown.

The epidermis has work to do if people are to remain healthy. I can’t believe tattoos assist in that regard. What is the medical evidence?

The temporal nature of tattoos (that is, their semi-permanence) should make this "finding"abundantly obvious.

Thank god someone studied this...i'm making my appointment for removal of all five of mine as soon as earthly possible. I wouldn't want the marginal revolution comment section to judge me.

Tattoos are basically your dead immune cells encasing the inks. There is scar tissue generated and that scar tissue and inks hinders the ability to see and find a vein to draw blood and to accurately hit the vein without going through the outer and inner walls of the vein when the tattoos are located where blood needs to be taken or medicines injected. The other issue with tattoos is a certain number of sweat cells are damaged and your ability to sweat and to cool down hindered. I am truly baffled when I see highly tattooed athletes.

I once saw an Olympic athlete at Athens 2000 who had the 5 olympic rings tattooed on his upper arm. I can imagine that if you're an olympian, then that is pretty nice way to remember a glorious part of your life.

First comment about "least surprising thing":

This is what drives (some) bad social science (psych.) research, the pressure to come up with "striking" (or counter-intuitive) results. Confirming what everyone thinks he knows or already believes is not enough, the result has to be tweet-worthy. What I'm saying is that sometimes it's worth showing that what everyone believes really is true (or rather, "true", or true to a degree, under specified conditions, etc.) Or as Bruce Lee said, sometimes a punch is just a punch.
You econ nerds need to be more circumspect about calling the kettle black.

Good point. Is there any self-awareness on the part of the field, I wonder, of their own addiction to the wrong-again!/surprising truth/counter-to-intuition framing?

Everyone in psych. is well aware. None of the problems of psych. are news to people in psych.

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