The finding is surprising, they write, because prior research has shown that many of the factors of educational achievement on which policymakers tend to focus, such as teacher quality and program effectiveness, have a relatively small affect on student achievement — “often nearly zero.”
To explore how looks affect educational performance, Hamermesh and his colleagues turned to separate data sets that track the academic achievements of children over several years: the U.S. Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which followed more than 1,300 kids who ranged from 6 months to 15 years old; and the U.K. National Child Development Study, which tracked 17,000 Britons born during a single week in 1958.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but social scientists still need a way to measure it. For each kid in the American study, looks were assessed by a panel of at least 10 undergraduates who watched segments of video interviews with the children collected over the course of the survey. The raters assessed each one’s looks on a scale from 1 (not at all cute/very unattractive) to 5 (very cute/very attractive).
For the U.K. study, attractiveness was assessed by the children’s teachers, who assigned each child to one of four categories: attractive, unattractive, “abnormal feature” or “underfed or scruffy and dirty.”
When it came to looks, the children in both studies were well-above average, with raters issuing scores that leaned toward the high end of their respective scales. Hamermesh has noted in previous work that this tends to happen when people rate adults as well: There’s something of a universal bias toward rating people as attractive.
Ratings in hand, the researchers then analyzed the relationship between a child’s looks and academic achievement, as measured via various standardized tests administered throughout the two studies. The studies revealed the same general pattern: Better looking children performed better on tests of academic achievement, even when controlling for ethnicity, gender and parents’ education and income.
Economists who’ve studied academic performance have found that children who perform better on tests tend to get more schooling: A student who aces all her reading and math tests is much more likely to go on to college than one who does not. Hamermesh and his colleagues estimate that good-looking kids’ heightened test performance relative to their average-looking peers works out to about 0.4 years, or five months, of additional schooling.
To determine why, Hamermesh and his colleagues tested a number of theories. They found some evidence that teachers report better relationships with the more attractive students, which explains some of the achievement gap. They also found that youngsters rated as unattractive were somewhat more likely to report being bullied by their peers, with detrimental spillover on their academic performance.
Similarly, they found that there were fewer reports of behavioral problems at school among the highly rated children.
But the effect of looks on grades remained much larger than all three of those factors — teacher-student relationships, bullying, and behavioral issues — combined. That means that the ultimate mechanism by which looks affect schooling remains a mystery and thus fertile ground for future research.
Nonetheless, the study offers a persuasive answer to one question: Why has previous research shown that better-looking people earn more money than their average-looking peers? Based on this new information, Hamermesh and his colleagues write that “20 to as much as 80 percent of the economic returns to beauty arises from its prior indirect effects on educational attainment.”
The good-looking among us, in other words, may have the odds tilted in their favor from the get-go. And although there may indeed be “more to life than being really, really, really ridiculously good-looking,” in the words of Derek Zoolander, the attractive do seem to be positioned to get the most out of life.