Ezra Klein posted a video to his Facebook this week called The Economic Benefits of Being Beautiful. Klein didn't make the video himself, it's actually credited to two directors named Joss Fong and Joe Posner, and when I watched it I felt like something was wrong.
I had a professor in college who always told me that in those situations you have to stop and ask yourself: “What bothers me about this?” It's the first question you have to ask in a long series of questions regarding the validity of an argument, how it's argued, and what the hell is actually being said.
According to the video, beautiful people have an advantage from day one:
- Cute babies get more affection from adults, including their parents.
- In school, teachers have higher expectations for the better-looking children compared to unattractive children.
- Attractive students get slightly higher grades in high school and are more likely to get a college degree.
- Hiring managers are more likely to consider attractive job applicants.
- People can predict election results from the candidates’ appearance.
- That may be because beautiful people are seen as more: competent, kind, trustworthy.
- Attractive women may be at a disadvantage if they’re applying to certain “masculine” jobs.
- Employees with above average looks get above average pay.
- Heavier women earn less.
- Taller people earn more (but they’re also a bit smarter on average).
- Even NFL quarterbacks make more money if their faces are more symmetrical.
- Attractive people may also have a better shot at a promotion;
- And if they end up in court, they can expect smaller fines.
- So, stop wondering why we spend so much on beauty products, we’re just responding to our economic incentives.
So, what bothers me about this video? Well, the first thing that sticks out to me is that it's entirely based on logical fallacy. For example, you can't correlate stuff like how much money NFL quarterbacks get with how attractive they are. There are so many factors that go into determining a player's salary, like the franchise cap and what other superstar players are on the team.
In the world of logic, the fallacy present in each of these 14 bullet points is called correlation proving causation. That is, it's a faulty assumption that correlation between two variables implies that one causes the other: post hoc ergo propter hoc. You might also say that this video contains a fallacy of the single cause, an assumption that there is only one, simple cause of an outcome when in reality it may have been caused by a number of only jointly sufficient causes. That is, Fong and Posner assert that being attractive leads to more money and a happier life when in reality it could be any number of things.
What they completely ignore here is the age old question of nature versus nurture. You're either born hot or you're born ugly. For Fong and Posner, with this line of logic, it's impossible to ever be successful if you're unlucky enough to be born ugly.
What about all the people who are taught, or nurtured, to be attractive though? Being nice, moral, ethical, and supportive are all attractive qualities, and those are things that are imprinted on humans from their ecosystem. Regardless, I don't think the nature versus nurture argument is nearly as important as what determines attractiveness. Isn't it an inherently subjective thing? There's an old anecdote here that I think is applicable: one person's trash is another person's treasure.
Is it any coincidence that what people found attractive in the 1950s isn't deemed attractive by today's standards? No, it's not. That's because societal standards change and evolve over time, thus showing that our definitions of what constitute attractiveness are not, in fact, static. I would even go so far as to say there is no set standard for attractiveness.
You can be a physically ugly person, but you can still win the hearts of entire nations because you have a beautiful personality, a fierce intellect, or talents beyond imagine. If you don't believe me, I'd say look no further than certain cast members of American Horror Story Freak Show, Stephen Hawking, and Susan Boyle. Without a doubt, these are attractive people.
And therein lies my final quarrel with this video: it presupposes that attractiveness is always an inherently physical element. If you look a certain way you're attractive. It's never, if you act a certain way you're attractive. I can't really define my issues more clearly than this, but if you need more look no further than the comments people have left for the video:
- Michael Brainerd “The prize goes to those who know/accept that they have an asset that some do not. It's too bad that “attractive” does not apply equally to Whites, Blacks, Asian. Why not?”
- Sally Jeppsen “Attractiveness is not necessarily based on luck. It can be a choice that people make. And sometimes good choices lead to good looks and good fortune.”
- Alex Brooks “So what's the point? All attractive people should acknowledge their privilege and we should start affirmative action programs based on how ugly you are?”
- Brett Lindenbach “Ezra, as a self-proclaimed statistical wonk, when are you going to realize the difference between correlation and causation?”
- Zareen Ali “Actually quite the opposite. I know of a lot of ill mannered hideous people that work in New York's posh offices,.mostly the financial center and 5th ave. Im in London now and ihave seen such differences in the job market here. Charm does play a role as described in your video. But not in NY .. Def not”
- Alexias Jump Taylor I'd like to say one thing, and you all can knock it if you want, but in my personal experience, it has been predominantly “attractive people” who went out of their way to be nasty assholes with no conscience.
- Danny Quinones “So stupid, beauty is in the eye of the beholder… proverb. beauty cannot be judged objectively, for what one person finds beautiful or admirable may not appeal to another. Still holds true, some people actually find Trump Attractive, so you tell me did we need a survey to tell us that? Really?”
- Jeff Zen “It seems like you are distorting statistics by including gender only where it appears to give women a disadvantage. Teachers are 70% female and female teachers have been proven in studies to give better grades to girls than boys on tests. Due to systematic discrimination in schools, girls now make up 60% of college students. Also, according to a 2015 Cornell study, women are seen as more hireable than equally qualified men for the same job when all else is equal. If you're going to convolute this topic by including gender, at least keep it balanced. How well do attractive women fare compared to men?”
- Mo Sosa: “As a sports expert, I'd like to point out the quarterback example in this video is deeply flawed. The most ‘attractive' quarterback in the league, Tom Brady, intentionally earns far less tan quarterbacks with less symmetrical faces, to achieve the ultimate goal of increasing the team's purchasing power. Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, and Drew Brees are also quarterbacks with heavy cap hits. A lot can (AND HAVE) argued against the opinion that these QB's might be attractive. But these aforementioned quarterbacks all have either a Superbowl, all pro selection or league record to their name. The point is, its ultimately about ability and circumstance.. not about how you look. 50,000 NFL fans are not going to pay to watch a game for the end goal of watching a pretty quarterback, but rather they want to watch a winning quarterback.”
Image Credit: Klein's posted video