Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud
We live in a society where we are meant to mouth polite platitudes when in company – that money doesn’t buy you happiness and that beauty is no more than skin deep. In the case of the last truism, in other words, that physical appearance is something we shouldn’t place too much emphasis on. To do so would be superficial.
However there is accumulating research evidence that certain aspects of appearance such as height and weight do have a significant impact on life. For example, success in the work place – to the extent that thinner taller people even earn significantly more than those who are shorter or fatter.
This kind of research is useful for those in the aesthetic arm of medicine to be aware of as it contradicts the idea that improving appearance is somehow a trivial activity in comparison to correcting a disability.
The reality is that physical appearance has a profound impact on life trajectory.
To consolidate this point, new research examining perhaps one of the easiest and most trivial appearance factors, hair colour, finds a weighty effect of being naturally blonde on some surprising aspects of life.
David Johnston from the Queensland University of Technology,School of Economics and Finance, Australia has turned his attention to whether blonde women earn more than those with other hair colours.
His study is based on the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth which involves 12,686 Americans residing in 8770 unique households who were 14–
21 years old in January 1979 and were re-interviewed biannually and annually from 1979 to 2006.
His analysis of the data, published in the prestigious academic journal Economics Letters, suggests that naturally blonde women earn 7% more than brunette women. This benefit in extra take home wages is as large an effect as an extra year of education.
Johnston also found that no other hair colour influences wages. We don’t exactly know why blonde women earn more but the most popular theory amongst academics who specialize on the impact of appearance, is that physically attractive workers are more confident, have superior communication and social skills, and, as a result, are wrongly considered by employers to be more productive.
There is however, another theory which is that blonde women may have a productivity advantage because they are more liked and therefore benefit from increased popularity with clients and colleagues. This theory can be tested by investigating occupations that involve more interactions with customers or co-workers. Johnston tested this proposition using statistical methods and found no effect of popularity.
Johnston went on to examine another interesting idea which is that if being blonde is considered more attractive than other hair colours, then it follows blonde women should attract more desirable mates. We know already from the attractiveness literature that physical appearance is less valued in men by women but ‘resource allocation’ or wealth is a desired trait.
Johnston found that spouses of blonde women are estimated to earn around 6% more than the spouses of other women.
The key element to Johnston’s research it’s crucial tounderstand is that the women were responding to a question about natural hair colour, not whether they had dyed their hair or not. This is important theoretically, because, suppose the research had been about blonde hair that was dyed as well. It could be that reverse causality might be in play. So it could be that earning more means people are promoted, and therefore take more care of their appearance, and perhaps as a result, are more likely to dye their hair blonde.
One of the problems with all research of this nature is that the outcome variable – earning more – could be related to the input variable via another mechanism – the direction of causality could be in question. With natural hair colour as the crucial variable as measured in this research – it’s difficult to see how earning more could via reverse causality, cause women to be more naturally blonde?
Another intriguing point that the author explores is the stereotype of blondes is, apparently, that they are less intelligent. Yet being blonde in this study meant you earned more money compared to other hair colours to the extent of benefiting as if you had an extra year’s schooling. In other words, it would seem there could be an argument for forgetting the extra year’s schooling, and dying your hair blonde instead.
Come to think of it, maybe that is what the stereotype was trying to suggest all along…?
Perhaps the rude stereotyping of blondes is really a defense reaction of the rest of us because we know at some level that being found more attractive reaps widespread benefits.
The reality, as highlighted by this research and others, is appearance matters. Even something as relatively trivial and easy to change as hair colour has a profound impact on other aspects of our lives, such as how much we earn, and the quality of the mate we attract.
Physical appearance and wages: Do blondes have more fun? Economics Letters, Volume 108, Issue 1, July 2010, Pages10-12 David W. Johnston