“Excuse me, I’m Calvin Klein, I think you should be my next underwear model,” the real Calvin Klein says to Drew, played by Jon Hamm, on 30 Rock’s classic “The Bubble” episode. Drew doesn’t even ask for Calvin’s number, because things just always work out for this extremely handsome character. Also in the episode, Drew is seen getting into any restaurant he wants, talking a traffic cop into ripping up his parking ticket, and even getting clients for his tennis coaching business despite his total lack of skill. He lives in a bubble of beauty, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy explains.
“Beautiful people are treated differently from …. Moderately pleasant-looking people,” he says, looking directly at Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. “They live in a bubble.”
But what if the bubble were real? One of the world’s leading experts on the link between attractiveness and income thinks it is.
According to Hamermesh, who has spent three decades deconstructing the financial benefits of beauty, culminating in the 2011 book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful, it pays to be good-looking. Along with another economist, Anwen Zhang, he has dug into just how much it’s worth, and it’s thousands of dollars.
The “beauty premium” turns out to provide a fairly significant pay bump. Children of attractive parents, on average, have annual incomes about $2,300 higher than their plain-faced counterparts, according to the new working paper from Hamermesh and Zhang titled “The economic impact of heritable physical traits: Hot parents, rich kid?”
“It’s about 5% of the average person’s earnings— it’s not small, it’s not huge,” Hamermesh, a professor emeritus at University of Texas at Austin, told Fortune. Over the course of a working life, that translates into an additional $106,000 in income, which the paper calls “substantial.”
Experts in beauty at work
Hamermish says beauty isn’t just skin deep, and this study of a clearly advantageous and family-linked trait can teach us something about creating a fairer and more just society. “Intergenerational opportunity,” he says, is “the most important question in the social sciences.”
“The crucial thing to stress is this is an inherited characteristic, and it affects the kid who has it,” he said. “Positively if they’re good-looking; negatively if parents have some genotypes that go on and make you ugly.”
Hamermesh and his co-author, Anwen Zhang of the University of Glasgow, first determined that beauty is, indeed, passed on from parent to child. Using four different datasets from the U.S. and China, in which observers rated parents’ and children’s attractiveness on a numerical scale, the researchers determined that having parents who were 10 percentage points more attractive than typical created a child about 4 percentage points more attractive.
Matching up these figures with household income data, they were then able to price ranking higher on the looks scale: $2,300 a year, on average.
This advantage works for two main reasons, Hamermesh said. “Firstly, my parents being more attractive makes me more attractive, and therefore I earn more money, because I’m better-looking,” he told Fortune. “The second factor is, my parents having done better, it gives me a leg up in society—better schools, better education and so forth.”
To that point, it would seem that having good bones makes one more comfortable with unearned advantage. One 2014 study found that people who believed themselves attractive were more comfortable with social inequality (because they mentally put themselves into a higher social class, by virtue of their looks).
Just how exactly, good-looking people finagle their way into more pay is a complex phenomenon, the result of hundreds of hard-to-measure human interactions. We see attractive people as more moral, more trustworthy, and kinder; voters consistently prefer taller candidates for office, while managers see attractive people as more capable than run-of-the-mill folks. And beyond Hamermesh’s research, the good-looking among us have consistently been shown to make more money, across a variety of industries—even the majority of jobs in which looks are irrelevant.
Good-looking law school graduates grow into higher-earning lawyers, an earlier study by Hamermesh found. Better-looking professors are rated higher on teaching evaluations; advertising firms with good-looking executives have higher revenues and pretty waitresses earn about $1,200 more in tips annually than their plainer counterparts. Pretty people also present as more confident and others view them as more capable, which can translate into better work performance and more frequent promotions.
The “moderately pleasant-looking” Liz Lemon would surely agree. After a waitress offers to “smack those glasses off your face,” she confronts Drew, telling him: “This is how most people live. Because of your whole ‘Disney prince’ thing… you live in a bubble where people do what you want and tell you what you want to hear.”
Still, while Hamermesh believes the findings are worrying, he isn’t yet calling for a beauty tax, saying he would prefer politicians address “ethnic, racial, religious bias” first. But because people can’t easily change how they look, the study of pretty privilege can offer some insight into other kinds of bias that pervade the workplace, he said.
“It’s very hard to change your looks or your race or gender, and in that sense it’s logically the same thing,” he added.