It Pays to Be Pretty

Putting a pricetag on being good-looking.

Posted Dec 19, 2008

Riding the bike at the gym yesterday, my glance alternated between the three close-captioned TV screens on the wall in front of me, bouncing between a variety of uplifting news stories on mortgage foreclosures, the auto bailout, unsolved child murder cases, and an impending blizzard in New England. Sufficiently depressed, I was about to call it a day when the following gem came across the newswire and caught my attention: "Good-Looking NFL Quarterbacks Get Paid More."

The story was based on a study conducted by economist David Berri and colleagues, in which they assessed the facial symmetry of 121 NFL quarterbacks over a 10-year period and determined the relationship between facial symmetry and player paycheck. The results? QBs with greater facial symmetry–a dimension regularly associated with physical attractiveness–tended to have higher salaries. This was especially the case for back-up quarterbacks, the ones at the bottom of the income distribution.

It's an interesting finding. My guess is that as with other, recent empirical studies of sports-related outcomes, there will be many in the media and general public who will instinctually shrug this off as somehow an inconclusive or manipulated result. That seemed to be the general reaction to last year's findings regarding race and NBA referee foul calls, for example. The idea that the mechanisms underlying our perception and judgments sometimes operate without our conscious awareness is one with which many people, particularly sports fans, seem inherently uncomfortable. 

Mind you, I'm not arguing that this most recent study is without its flaws. In the interest of full disclosure, all I've been able to dig up so far are the media descriptions of the study, not a write-up of the study itself. And the social psychologist in me does come to one immediate question: why rely solely on facial symmetry? Why not actually have a group of people, who don't recognize these quarterbacks, rate each one in terms of attractiveness?

Sure, facial symmetry is a good predictor of attractiveness. But sugar content is a good predictor of how tasty people find a particular food and you wouldn't conduct a taste test by simply measuring teaspoons of sugar, would you? You'd have people sample and rate the products, right? So why no QB taste test here?

But I have no reason to suspect the results would come out much differently if such a measure were taken.  The finding as reported is consistent with a lot of what we now know about the ways in which we form impressions of other people, even though no football general manager would ever admit that attractiveness played a role in their evaluation of a quarterback. And for good reason–it would be tantamount to admitting that they never would've signed Johnny Unitas (left).

And, of course, the main reason no GM would admit this is that it isn't a conscious process. Many of the factors that shape our impressions of others operate outside of our awareness. Quarterbacks are supposed to be team leaders and spokesmen, and we have a set of expectations regarding the characteristics that go along with such leadership. Attractiveness. Confidence. Even height, which helps explain why shorter QB prospects like Doug Flutie have often faced such an uphill battle (figuratively and literally).

If we take this discussion outside the realm of sports, other studies provide converging results. A few years ago, psychologist Alex Todorov of Princeton University and his colleagues showed research participants the faces of individuals running for U.S. Senate. Based on just a 1-second look, respondents were asked to evaluate "how competent" each face appeared. These ratings of competence turned out to be significant predictors of whether or not a given candidate had won the election, as well as the final vote margin.

Or how about the world of business? Psychologists Nick Rule and Nalini Ambady of Tufts University showed respondents the faces of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies. People's ratings of how "competent" and "dominant" these faces were–again, based on very brief exposure to mere photos–emerged as significant predictors of how profitable that CEO's company was over a three-year time-span.

What's amazing about studies like these is that they show that we do more than just gauge attractiveness when we first meet someone. We're also forming impressions and drawing reasonably accurate conclusions about how effective a leader they are, just based on a few seconds of interacting with them. Or just by brief exposure to a photo! It's a similar process to the one that allows students who see a brief, silent clip of a professor giving a lecture to make remarkably accurate predictions of how that instructor will be viewed by his or her actual students in end of semester teaching evaluations.

So consider yourselves warned–there's now a telling new statistic to focus on when you watch football on Sundays. And those of you out there, women and men, who aren't fans of the sport of football per se, but rather aficionados of the physical specimens who engage in it, you no longer need to apologize for your focus being drawn away from the numbers of th scoreboard. Just tell your viewing companions that you're in the midst of conducting your own scientific research study.