Games Primates Play

The evolution and economics of human relationships.

The truth about why beautiful people are more successful

It has something to do with sex

Have you ever sat next to a supermodel on a plane? If you always fly in Economy class, the answer is probably no. Some supermodels, of course, fly only on private jets, so you'll never see them on commercial airline flights. But the few times I recognized an attractive supermodel or actress on a plane, she invariably sat in First or Business (F/B) class (the same may be true for attractive male models or actors, but I pay less attention to them). Famous people, of course, live in a special world of their own and they may have all kinds of special reasons for traveling in F/B class. But where you sit on a plane is not just about how famous you are.

I fly frequently and at some point I began to notice that the passengers who sit in F/B class seem better-looking than those sitting in Economy (E). This applies to individuals of both genders and of any age, including children and people in their 70s. A few times, as I boarded a plane and walked to reach my seat in the last row I mentally assigned an attractiveness score, from 1 to 10, to the people sitting in F/B class and calculated an average. Then I did the same for some random people sitting in the middle of the E class. Every time I did this, the average score for the people in the F/B class turned out to be higher than the average score for the people in the E class, which means that I rated the F/B people as being more attractive. My observations and mental calculations, of course, cannot be considered scientific data by any stretch of imagination. I encourage all of you-the readers of this blog-to do the same observations next time you fly and send me your average attractiveness scores for the F/B and the E passengers. When I have enough reports, I will run a statistical analysis and we will all publish our results in Science magazine (or more likely, I will write another blog about it).

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Assuming that I am correct, I can think of at least three different explanations for the differences in attractiveness between the F/B and the E class passengers. First, it's possible that more attractive people are generally wealthier than less attractive people, and therefore more likely to purchase expensive F/B class tickets when they fly. Second, it's possible that more attractive people are more likely to work for companies that purchase F/B class tickets for their employees when they travel for work (for example, business executives who work for large corporations). Third, it's possible that more attractive people think they are special and are willing to pay a lot more money for a F/B class ticket regardless of their personal wealth or what companies they work for. Somehow, I don't think that this third explanation is the correct one. Very attractive people can be a little narcissistic and think that they deserve a special treatment, but the size of people's egos alone is unlikely to justify spending a few extra thousand dollars for a F/B class ticket, unless these people are wealthy enough to be able to afford it.

So we are left with the first two explanations, which imply that more attractive people are, on average, wealthier and have higher-paying jobs (if your company buys you a F/B class ticket when you travel for work, chances are you have a high-paying job) than less attractive people. This happens to be a well-known fact that has been reported by dozens of studies done by economists and psychologists. Many of these studies are summarized and discussed in the 2011 book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, written by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas in Austin.

The research reviewed by Hamermesh shows that attractive people, both men and women, earn an average of 3 or 4% more than people with below average looks, which adds up to a significant amount of money over a lifetime. Beautiful people are also hired sooner, get promotions more quickly, are higher-ranking in their companies (a study found the CEOs of larger and more successful companies are rated as being more physically attractive than the CEOs of smaller companies), and get all kinds of extra benefits and perks on the job including, perhaps, more free tickets to fly in F/B class. It turns out that more attractive people often bring more money to their companies and therefore are more valuable employees. For example, a good-looking insurance salesperson will sell more insurance than one with below average looks. But that's not the whole story. Even in situations in which more and less attractive employees don't differ in their earning potential, employers are biased in favor of the better-looking people. For example, a study showed that above average looking people who apply for loans are more likely to obtain loans and to pay lower interest rates than below-average looking borrowers. This occurs despite the fact that the two groups of borrowers don't differ in their demographic characteristics (age or gender) or credit history. In fact, it turned out that the attractive borrowers were more likely to be delinquent on their loans than the less attractive people. Hamermesh's conclusion is that lenders are willing to exchange more generous terms on loans "for the pleasure of dealing with good-looking borrowers." They do this, according to him, simply because they are prejudiced against bad-looking borrowers. Similarly, Hamermesh thinks that good-looking insurance salespeople sell more insurance because customers are biased against bad-looking insurance sellers.

This explanation is pretty much the only thing that caught my attention in Hamermesh's book, which is otherwise a good example of how to write a boring book on a great topic. Having a prejudice against bad-looking people is not a good explanation for having a bias in favor of good-looking people. In fact, it's not an explanation at all. It's the same as saying that half a glass is full because the other half is empty. I'd like to offer an alternative explanation for "the pleasure of dealing with good-looking people." It's called sex. Good-looking people are more appealing as potential sex partners, and other people choose to interact with them (to spend time near them, talk with them, buy insurance from them, and hire them as employees) so as to increase the chances to have sex with them.

The male mind is designed in such a way when it comes to sex that heterosexual men will do anything to increase their chances to have sex with an attractive woman, no matter how small these chances are, and even if what they do only increases the probability of sex from 0.01 to 0.015 %. What a man can do ranges from a simple smile to an act of courtesy, to sending an email or making a phone call, to having a brief conversation with a woman on a train or a plane. These actions may also include purchasing insurance from an attractive insurance saleswoman; they definitely also include hiring an attractive woman to make her a permanent feature of the working environment. Not all of these actions occur consciously. Some are expressed unconsciously in the form of subtle biases in preferences, decision-making, or other behaviors. The advertisement industry knows this very well. Virtually all the ads in Italian sports newspapers, which are mainly read by men, feature half-naked attractive models, regardless of the nature of the product being advertised. The female mind may not be as extreme as the male mind in pursuing ALL opportunities for sex with attractive partners, but women too are active players in this arena. Heterosexual women too like to look at ads featuring half-naked male models and they flirt (consciously or unconsciously) with attractive men whenever they get the chance.

I have an attractive friend who flies frequently for work and whose employer buys First Class tickets for her. She tells me that 99% of the men who occupy the seat next to her start talking to her at some point during the flight, and half of them end up asking for her phone number. Sometimes, she closes her eyes and pretends to be asleep to avoid being bothered. No one bothers me when I sit in the last row of the Economy class. Sometimes, I am lucky enough that no one is sitting next to me on either side, so I can stretch my body across three seats, close my eyes, and sleep for real.

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Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D., is a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology at the University of Chicago.

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