Earning Power: Smarts Trump Beauty by Only Small Margin

May 13, 2009

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Analytics, Automated & MarTech

Having keen intelligence still holds the most sway in terms of overall career earning power, but recent research reveals that good looks also have a great deal of influence, a finding that is troubling to researchers at the University of Florida.

The study, which examined how the attributes of intelligence, beauty and self-confidence affect income and financial strain among US adults, found that people with higher intelligence earn more in their lifetime than those who are attractive or self-confident. After brains, self-confidence ranks second in importance, though it is followed closely by beauty.

“While beauty matters to career success, brains matter most,” said Timothy Judge, the University of Florida management professor who led the research. “If you were somehow able to choose from being smart, good-looking or self-confident, our study shows that while you’d want all three qualities, brains are the most important to economic success.”

Judge suggested one reason for this is that intelligence is rewarded early in life with positive reinforcement from teachers, which boosts self-confidence and encourages future academic success.

“Smart people do better in their careers because they are more likely to be educated and are more confident in their abilities,” Judge said. “And it’s also possible that smart people make better career choices, learn more on the job, negotiate for pay more effectively and adapt better to changes in the workplace.”

“We ugly people can all breathe a sigh of relief,” said Jose Cortina, a psychology professor at George Mason University, who reacted to the research findings.

Beauty Importance ‘Troubling’

The study also found that although beauty ranks last in terms of the three attributes, its importance to earnings is still troubling. “With few exceptions, such as modeling, attractiveness is not particularly relevant to job performance and is never seen in job descriptions,” Judge said. “Yet it still matters to what people earn.”

Part of the reason for attractive people’s success is that their educational – and job – prospects are influenced by their looks, the study found.

“From an early age, good-looking students receive more teacher instruction and attention, while being punished less frequently, making them more likely to finish high school and attend college,” said Judge, citing other research that supports this finding. “In one study school psychologists were less likely to refer attractive, poorly achieving third-grade students to remedial classes than their homelier classmates.”

Judge said the results also emphasize the need for employers to be fair in their hiring and not unduly influenced by a job candidate’s appearance.

“Intelligence is a legitimate factor to consider in almost all jobs because research shows that intelligence predicts job performance in nearly all types of work, even fairly simple, entry-level jobs,” he said. “While the same can be said for self-confidence, looks are another matter.”

About the study: The study was conducted by Professor Judge and University of Florida graduate students among 191 adults between ages 25 and 75 who participated in the National Midlife Development in the United States study. Measures of intelligence were derived from a series of established tests and mental exercises, while self-confidence was determined from a 15-item questionnaire examining attitudes about one’s ability to cope with various life situations. Researchers judged attractiveness by rating personal photographs of the participants on a scale of one to seven. The research is published in the May issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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