Monday, March 19, 2018

Each one-standard-deviation improvement in attractiveness is associated with approximately 3.9% reduction in the probability of winning the Nobel Prize

Nobel Beauty. Jan Fidrmuc, Boontarika Paphawasit, Cigdem Borke Tunali. The Rimini Centre for Economic Analysis, Oct 2017,  WP 17- 27.

Abstract: We consider the effect of physical attractiveness, assessed using publicly available pictures of top scientists, on their probability of winning the Nobel Prize. There is now an extensive body of literature that finds that physically attractive people receive non-negligible benefits in the labor market, marriage market and social life. In contrast, we find that attractiveness is negatively correlated with the probability of being awarded the Nobel, with the magnitude of this effect being non-negligible. We discuss the potential mechanisms that could explain this result.

We consider the effect of physical attractiveness on the probability of receiving the Nobel Prize. The previous literature has found plentiful evidence that attractiveness brings about benefits in the labor market, personal life and marriage, and even research (at least in terms of quality of academic publications and number of citations). The literature is inconclusive, nevertheless, as to whether these gains are due to discrimination in favor of attractive people or whether physical beauty is a signal of better health, higher intelligence, or competence.

In our analysis, we collected pictures of 324 top scientists in physics, chemistry, medicine and economics: these researchers were either predicted to be awarded the Nobel Prize, or have actually received it. We had these pictures rated for their attractiveness by a broad sample of UK undergraduate students. Somewhat surprisingly, we find that being more attractive reduces the probability of receiving the Nobel Prize. When we allow for the relationship being non-linear, it appears hump-shaped, with average-looking scientist having the best odds of being awarded the Nobel. The magnitude of the effect is potentially large: assuming the relationship is linear, each one-standard-deviation improvement in attractiveness is associated with approximately 3.9% reduction in the probability of winning the Nobel Prize. Given that winng the Prize is a very unlikely outcome, a probability difference of this magnitude is not negligible.

Our results reveal correlation rather than causality and we cannot tell what mechanism drives our findings. One possible explanation is discrimination, whereby the nominators and/or the selection committee (subconsciously) consider attractive scientists as less serious and not fitting the expectations that they have about what a top scientist looks like. A google image search for ‘typical scientist’ very clearly demonstrates the stereotypes that we hold about what a scientist should look like. Such a search produces few images of persons who would be generally considered attractive (being male, older, with eye glasses and bad hair apparently are among the chief hallmarks of achievement in science). Even fewer of them are women (let alone attractive women), suggesting that female scientists are especially likely to suffer from such stereotyping. Therefore, a top scientist whose appearance does not fit our expectations may have a harder time convincing others their merits. This is in line with a recent result by Gheorghiu, Callan and Skylark (2017), who find that attractive scientists are less likely to be seen as ‘good scientists’ by the participants in their experiment.

Another possibility, however, is that attractive scientists have better alternative options besides top research. Looking good boosts one’s labor market performance and promotion chances, so that attractive academics may be more likely to take up leadership positions with more responsibilities, better pay, higher administrative burden, and less time for pure science. Good looking researchers also have richer options in their social, love and family spheres of life. Therefore, attractive scientists may devote less time and effort to the kind of research that would be likely to lead to a path-breaking contribution that would earn them the Nobel Prize. The limited information that we have on our sample of scientists does not allow us to discriminate between these two alternative hypotheses.

Finally, it is interesting that the impact of physical attractiveness is different for top and mainstream scientists. In related research, Paphawasit and Fidrmuc (2017) consider the effect of good looks on publication quality (journal rank and impact factor) and citations of a broad cross-section of academics in the discipline of economics, and find a positive relationship of both outcomes with physical attractiveness. Therefore, attractive persons are more successful even in research, except at the very top of the distribution of talent.

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