Judging a book by its cover – How appearance and other seemingly innocuous attributes make a huge difference in the job market

Good exam results. Check. Good degree from a respected university. Check. Relevant work experience. Check. Movie star looks. Ermm…. no. Anyway, what on earth has that got to do with whether I get this job? I’m not applying for a job as a model ….

Wrong. Appearances do matter in the job market. A study, conducted in 1998, by McGill University (Kaczorowski) studied over 1600 people and concluded that people rated to have ‘above average’ looks earned between 2.2-6.1% more than the ‘average’ looks and those with ‘below average’ looks earning up to 13% less than average. Whilst the percentages may be larger than expected, is it really that much of a surprise? German study (Pfiefer 2011) pointed out that aside from conscious and subconscious discrimination by the employer, attractive people are advantaged. In areas such as retail, customers may be willing to pay more to receive a good or service from an attractive person than someone less attractive. However, physical attractiveness is correlated with intelligence, which indicates that it may not be pure discrimination. Having collected a large sample, an American study concluded that people rated ‘very attractive’ had an IQ of 6.5 points higher than people rated ‘very unattractive’.

In terms of earnings, tall people are head and shoulders above the rest. In Britain, if you are white and male, an inch difference is matched by a 1.7% increase in earnings in Britain; 1.8% in the USA. In both countries, the smallest quarter earns 10% less than the tallest quarter. However, the University of Pennsylvania study concluded that the differential in height aged 16 is more important than the differential as an adult, which seemingly rules out any perception of employer bias. The study concluded that tall 16-year-olds are more well-off in later life because they are more likely to participate in social activities, such as sport, thus gaining invaluable social skills, whilst their shorter counterparts may be stigmatised and thus, have lower social skills and self esteem.

To succeed, you may want to change your surname, according to a deed poll, to Aaronson. A study by Einav and Yariv (at Stanford and Caltech respectively) concluded that in economics-related academia, those with surnames near the beginning of the alphabet were more successful in gaining professorships at leading universities and becoming a fellow of the Econometric Society. They attributed this to the alphabetical listing of authors’ credits in academic papers. Giving credence to that line of argument is due to the fact that no such discrimination occurs in psychology, in which authors are listed roughly according to their contribution. Yet, there are other factors especially among older generations when it was far more common for a teacher to seat a class alphabetically. It is argued that as those with surnames near the beginning of the alphabet sat near the front of the class and received more attention from teachers, they pulled ahead of their classmates with surnames lower in the alphabet. A small, but very interesting phenomenon is that of “aptonyms”, those who are in professions that are related to either their name, such as the sprinter Usain Bolt, poet William Wordsworth or Bernard who Madoff with everyone’s investment money.

These three unexpected factors determining success are by no means the only ones. As well as the now famous 10,000 hours of preparation to excel at a pursuit, Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book Outliers: The Story of Success that those born nearer the start of the (calendar or school) year have an advantage over their later born peers at sport as older people are physically more mature and more likely to receive specialist coaching at an earlier age.
There may be more such determinants of future success. Academic qualifications and relevant skills and experiences are clearly important when applying for a highly-paid job. But even leaving intelligence aside, your success in life may be dependent on factors that you cannot control, and factors which you may think have no influence at all.

Contributed by Oliver Garner