How Your Face Shapes Your Economic Chances

A new study on the value of a fat face (for guys) joins a long tradition of beauty biases in the office
JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon: Rich man, decently symmetrical face, too (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Beauty, closely studied, seems nearly indistinguishable from quick math.

Men seem to prefer women with a low waist-to-hip ratio. Women prefer men with optimally long jaws. For reasons we don't entirely understand, humans find symmetrical faces consistently bewitching. A 2005 study found women can accurately guess the symmetry of a man's face just by smelling his tee-shirt. These calculations are made with breathtaking speed. We decide whether we like a face in no more than 13 milliseconds, according to a 2005 study. (That's 30x faster than an average blink.)

The quick math of judging beauty has long-term consequences for the judged. Attractive people simply have an easier time with life. As the Association for Psychological Science aptly sums up:

Mothers give more affection to attractive babies. Teachers favor more attractive students and judge them as smarter. Attractive adults get paid more for their work and have better success in dating and mating. And juries are less likely to find attractive people guilty and recommend lighter punishments when they do.

As we've reported, the workplace offers a heavily concentrated dose of beauty biases. Consider:

  • Attractive CEOs raise their company's stock price when they first appear on television, according to a working paper by Joseph T. Halford and Hung-Chia Hsu at the University of Wisconsin
  • Taller people are richer. In fact, every inch between 5'7'' and 6 feet is "worth" about 2 percent more in average annual earnings.
  • Being better looking than at least 67 percent of your peers is worth about $230,000 over your lifetime.
  • Having blond hair is worth as much as a year of school—for women.
  • Being an obese white woman is particularly punishing for your potential lifetime earnings.

Some of these findings struck me as sadly intuitive and others as surprising. But I was particularly intrigued by a study out this week purporting to show that men with fat faces—ahem, "greater facial width-to-height ratios"—hold an advantage in negotiations with other men.

A team of researchers from the University of California-Riverside, London Business School, and Columbia University found that moon-headed guys were "less cooperative negotiators compared to men with smaller facial ratios," and that "this lack of cooperation allows them] to claim more value when negotiating with other men." Interestingly, the effect is invisible when negotiating with women and these big-heads were deemed "less likely to reach an agreement in a negotiation that required cooperation to reach a creative, integrative solution."

Speaking as a shortish, youngish-looking man with a thin face, I'm keenly interested in an explanation for these biases that obliterates their logic. Unfortunately for my purposes, follow-up studies on the link between height and income have found another variable in play, which is intelligence: People who are notably taller than their peers around the age of 16 also tend to be smarter. Similarly, there is some evidence that men with big heads are biologically predisposed to the sort of bullishness that makes them effective negotiators when they're surrounded by pencil-necks.

But many beauty biases at the office are no more than mental short cuts. The same way that shoppers are constantly hunting for clues that certain products are a good deal because we don't know the true value of anything (look at that discount! it's so much cheaper than that similar-looking thing!), managers and employees, who can't fully know the true potential of their peers, are bound to use short cuts to guess who's competent. Comely women and confident men might not exude PowerPoint skills in their waist-to-hip or facial width-to-height ratios, but comeliness and confidence are easy clues to pick up, which means they begin to inform our opinion of people before we're even aware that we're forming an opinion. After all, the first draft of our first impressions are sealed after as little as 13 milliseconds. Once you realize that, it's amazing we're not even more biased.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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