The new book The Beauty Bias is positively reviewed at In These Times. The review’s author, Lindsay Beyerstein, offers lots of stats to back up the idea that unattractive people suffer both pre and post-employment bias. (And no, looks are not relative nearly to the extent assumed by idioms such as those that use the words “eye of the beholder.”) The most obvious and common form of ugliness is obesity, which makes it the easiest to operationalize for the purposes of discrimination studies. The methodology could be faulted here. She writes that:
In one study, 43% of overweight women reported feeling stigmatized by their employers. Obese women earn 12% less than their thinner counterparts with comparable qualifications. Obese women are more likely to live in poverty, even after controlling for other factors.
Feeling stigmatized is not the same being stigmatized. But what of the earning stats, noting the difference in pay? The explanation could be that thinner women are especially confident, not that obese women are especially downbeat. And having the right attitude is not orthogonal to one’s qualifications, but integral to it. But even if thinner women are confident regardless of any malice directed at their overweight counterparts, undermining the charge of stigmatization, it’s probably of no consequence to Beyerstein’s goal of correcting the perceived injustice of looks inequality. (Beyerstein also discusses the bias engendered by looking too good, but just as an aside.)
But the problem with her approach is embedded in the review itself. She writes that, “Almost from birth, infants stare longer at faces that adults rate as attractive” (assuming that staring connotes attraction to beauty). If this is the case, then it suggests that trying to rectify beauty bias would be more than simply beneficial to the ugly (and even here, ala the minimum wage, only those that are hired or remain employed?) – it would be detrimental to everybody else. One could argue that the utility gain to the newly hired, and newly continually employed, ugly people is larger than the utility loss on the part of co-workers (the ugly ones whose marginal productivity would keep them employed nonetheless included!) and consumers. But even assuming this is true, if the dampening effects on business overall is strong enough, resulting in a lack of capital and thus labor for industries for which physical attractiveness is of some value, then nobody wins. Beyerstein notes that there has been no flood of litigation in cities and states that have adopted bans on looks discrimination – Michigan averages one per year – but this could simply mean that the self-selection of good and bad looking people into their “respective” occupations continues apace, and that the law was superfluous.
In any case, Beyerstein’s fundamental assumption, that job aptitude and physical attractiveness are not inherently linked, is flawed. She laments that “psychological research has shown that unattractive people are assumed to be less intelligent, less capable and less trustworthy.” Unfortunately for her this is a correct assumption.
It would appear Robin Hanson’s query about silence on the issue of beauty inequality has been addressed.