'Ugly' people earn more, but at what cost?

Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: The "ugliness premium" is a phenomenon linked to the human tendency to favor the underdog
  • But this is also a problematic form of intra-gender sexism -- clear and troubling evidence of female misogyny, she writes

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)For years, scientific studies have proven that human beings respond more positively to beautiful people. We like, trust and value them more. Good-looking people, we've been told time and again, get better jobs, receive higher pay and have an easier time in life. Evolutionarily speaking, pretty people win.

Peggy Drexler
While all this remains true, according to a new study, the very ugly don't do so badly either, and they may even have an advantage. A recent piece published in the Journal of Business and Psychology found, despite conventional thought, pretty people don't have all the power. In a survey of workers, those rated "very unattractive" earned more than any other category, including those judged "most attractive." This "ugliness premium" meant that the least attractive 3% of the population out-earned the 50% who are only sort of ugly or just average looking.
You might say: But isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Maybe. But maybe not. The researchers also write that "ratings of physical attractiveness by human judges are known to be highly correlated with measures of bilateral facial symmetry by a computer program and are intersubjectively stable."
    The study authors had some thoughts about why this was. One of the theories suggested that the very ugly were simply more intelligent or better educated than their relatively more attractive counterparts. But other studies have shown a link between intelligence and attractiveness.
    My two cents -- the ugliness premium has to do with the human tendency to favor the underdog, a tendency especially apparent among women. And it's not a noble act. Instead, it's a form of intra-gender sexism, or clear and troubling evidence of female misogyny.
    Women have an inherent desire to hold other women back, especially those women whom they perceive as better-looking, smarter or wealthier than they are. This is a form of self-preservation. Fewer spots at the top -- of whatever ladder women are seeking to climb -- have resulted in a drive to limit those who can truly compete. Rewarding the ugly, the non-threatening, is one way to keep those more threatening women down.
    We see this attraction to the underdog all the time -- in friendships, in the workplace and even in families. Women favor those who won't outshine them. We see it in teenagers, when girls may seek out the unattractive friend who makes them look attractive by comparison -- a real-life trend fully solidified by Hollywood. See: 2015's "The DUFF," a movie in which the main character finds out that she's the "designated ugly fat friend."
    We see it in the professional arena, when the female boss hires women who are good, but not too good as to pose a threat to her own hard-won power. We see it in families, in the mother-in-law who can't help but take a jab at the woman her son has chosen -- and, perhaps, the daughter-in-law who can't help but want to make clear to her husband how very different she is from his mother (even if she's not).
    Of course, what the ugliness premium serves to reinforce is the idea that beauty does matter, if mostly in relation to how we view our own. The ugliness premium is proof that we prefer those who don't threaten our own security and proof of the very tenuousness of that security.
    It's worth noting that the study authors found that the ugliness premium does not extend to politics, where previous research has also shown that good looks continue to prevail. This also makes sense if you think of attractive women in politics as those we view as the least threatening. Sarah Palin: attractive and nonthreatening -- a woman, perhaps, other women could relate to and a woman men could control. Hillary Clinton: less conventionally attractive and a threat to so many (perhaps some of the 53% of white women who voted for Trump?); a woman fewer women could relate to and a woman men would not be able to control.
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    Perhaps we should be relieved to learn that unattractiveness comes with certain benefits. Surely it's an equalizer, or at least some sort of welcome comeuppance for the physically disadvantaged. Except it's hard to rejoice when this comeuppance is almost certainly rooted in insecurity and the desire we have -- as humans, and perhaps especially as women -- to keep one another down.
    So the ugly people win a little, this time. But everyone still loses.