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April 10, 2009

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Doctor Jones's Office Hours


Good-looking people enjoy what economists/sociologists call a “beauty premium.” They get paid more and are seen as better at their jobs than people of average attractiveness. It works for men and for women. Men, for example, get a premium for being taller, in shape, handsome, and with a nice head of hair.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. A new Israeli study suggests that male professors get a beauty bump, but female professors don’t. The researchers guess that this is rooted in a “contradiction between… role images and gender images”: somehow, female attractiveness is seen as incongruous with the paternal, traditional scholar/educator role of the professor, where male attractiveness isn’t — particularly, it seems, for female students. That’s the idea, anyways.

I don’t endorse this conclusion, but there’s definitely something going on here. A couple of things that came to my mind on reading this:

  1. This was a study of evaluations by students — it would be VERY interesting to see how the beauty premium affects judgments by peers, colleagues, with respect to scholarship, tenure, hiring, etc. Having been on the job market recently, it’s become very clear to me how much weight is placed on establishing a personal rapport with your potential colleagues during your visit, most of which is devoted to eating and parties and talking somewhat peripherally about scholarship. Anytime hiring decisions depend not least on one’s performance during a high-stakes dinner party, it seems natural that these kinds of not-always-conscious judgments play a big role.
  2. Let me put forward the idea that role, gender, and attractiveness are really super-connected. Let me put it this way. There’s a kind of alternative tweedy attractiveness that’s different from generic attractiveness. Sharp glasses might be by general acclaim hotter on a professor than on a TV presenter (or an archaeologist-adventurer) exactly because glasses (and the kind of attractiveness they project) hew more closely to the role we assign that person. So if you show people a photograph of someone and say “this person is a professor,” they might evaluate their attractiveness differently than if you said “X is a lawyer, Y is an athlete, Z is a musician,” and so forth.
  3. I always say that a teacher needs to project competence, trustworthiness, and sympathy — are these, ultimately, just different ways of saying one must be handsome?
  4. They certainly don’t seem entirely unrelated. At any rate, I now have a professional interest in worrying about my hair color (along with my weight and wardrobe) — my bright-red lion’s mane has always been my claim to fame.
Posted April 10, 2009 at 8:39 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Beauty, Learnin', Society/Culture


Makes me think back to the typical "hot for teacher" reactions in my high school whenever there was a new attractive faculty member. I wonder how much of it is a factor of your sensory relationship with the person - you're often only really looking at them, with hearing being secondary.

I would love to see the teacher evaluations from the students broken down by gender so I can respond with a pejorative meowww.

At least according to the research, the bump for attractive male teachers largely comes from their female students. Attractive female teachers don't get the same lift from either their male or female students.

(Love the post title & image, & the fact that you did not directly mention either in the post. That is blogging de sophistiqué.)

"De sophistiqué?" Vraiment, tu deviens très français; peut-être tu oubliais ton idiom rustique?

Oh, lest I be accused of too much sophistication, I didn't pull the Henry Jones, Jr. reference out of nowhere; the Miller-McCune article references Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The image, for those of you scoring along at home, is from The Last Crusade, briefly before Indy climbs out of his office window with his dad's diary: I took the snap myself.

I finally got around to looking at the original article because I had a suspicion that the study might not be singling out a pure "beauty premium." It struck me as quite feasible, that the quality of teaching might impact beauty assessments, and that this research could indicate that female students were more likely to factor in teaching style to beauty assessments of male professors (who knows why...).

Sure enough, that could be the case. The study relied on asking students at the end of the semester to evaluate attractiveness along with evaluating the course. At the end of their paper, the authors admit the problem and propose a study that would have students evaluate beauty or attractiveness at the beginning as well as end of the course. I'd be just as happy to have totally un-related students make an independent beauty assessment of teachers in a line-up. That could then be correlated to teaching evaluations.

Either way, I suspect that teaching effectiveness impacts attractiveness much more strongly than the researchers assume.

Posted by: Dan on April 15, 2009 at 12:25 PM

Indeed -- where's the research to illuminate, in general terms, how behavior affects our perception of attractiveness?

Everybody has had that experience (right?) of someone "morphing" over time, becoming more attractive, b/c of your lived experience of their confidence, kindness, etc.

The way you would get around this problem in testing is to independently match your attractiveness data -- for instance, have a randomized group of students NOT in the class evaluate the teacher's attractiveness through photos or video. Presumably if attractiveness is the independent variable here, then the teacher who strangers think is hot will get better evaluations from their students (who will also confirm said hotness).

If those deviated sharply -- for example, if a teacher with high evaluations only got high attractiveness from his students, and not the random control, then you've got yourself an endogeneous variable.

There already is some research that suggests that our evaluation of a person's attractiveness depends on a lot more than physical appearance in a vacuum. For instance, in addition to pictures, you can give information about income, religion, family status, age, occupation, education, usw... A teacher is consistently projecting all of these things, in addition to his/her personality/"inherent quality" as a teacher.

I vaguely remember seeing a study that claimed heterosexual women were considerably more likely to say that a man was attractive if they believed (rightly or wrongly) that he had a large income. For heterosexual men, a woman's income had a negligible impact on her perceived attractiveness.

Right. I agree with Tim on the preferred study design. Now if only someone would do it.

For my money, a study that came to its attractiveness ratings via an independent group would demonstrate a significantly smaller beauty premium.

Posted by: Dan on April 15, 2009 at 06:18 PM
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