THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 25, Fall 2003

William A. McEachern, Editor

Beauty Contest

Nearly a decade ago, Daniel Hamermesh of UT-Austin and Jeff Biddle of Michigan State found that, for a variety of occupations, a person's looks have a statistically significant effect on earnings ("Beauty and the Labor Market," American Economic Review, December 1994, pp. 1174-94). Other things constant, people with above average looks earned about 5 percent more than people with average looks, and those with below average looks earned about 5 percent less. Whether this premium results from higher work productivity remains an open question. Perhaps better looking people have the confidence to seek better paid positions or people who earn more can afford better grooming, a more stylish wardrobe, and more cosmetic surgery and dental work.

As a way of moving closer to the productivity question, Hamermesh and Amy Parker, an undergraduate economics major at UT-Austin, wanted to find out whether an instructor's looks affects course evaluations. Their sample consisted of student evaluations of 463 undergraduate courses taught by 94 instructors at UT-Austin during the academic years 2000-2002. Underlying the sample were 16,957 completed evaluations.

To develop an index of beauty, the authors asked six undergraduates (three males and three females) to independently score each instructor's looks based on a photograph. Beauty scores were fairly consistent across the six judges. The authors also gathered other information about each instructor, including gender, tenure-track status, minority status, and whether educated in an English-speaking country.

They found, after adjusting for other factors, that courses taught by instructors judged as better looking received significantly higher course ratings. On a scale from 1.0 to 5.0, with 5.0 the best, evaluations ranged from 3.5 for the least attractive instructors up to 4.5 for the best looking, other things constant. The average course evaluation was 4.0. The effect was robust and found within university departments and even within particular courses. Compared to female instructors, male instructors gained more of a premium for good looks and more of a penalty for bad looks.

The question remains whether beauty makes instructors more productive in the classroom—say, because students pay closer attention or because better looking teachers are more self confident—or whether students are simply giving those with irrelevant beauty characteristics higher evaluations.

Average evaluations were lower for females, minority faculty, non-native English speakers, and tenure trackers. The higher evaluations for non-tenure trackers may at first seem surprising but these instructors are often selected specifically because of their teaching ability. "Beauty in the Classroom: Professors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity" (July 2003) is available at www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Hamermesh/listpapers.html.

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