Beauty Before Brains

If you survived high school, or hope to, you probably made your peace with the fact that life is unfair: looks can compensate for a lack of brains and conscientiousness. Or to put it more bluntly, teachers give good-looking kids higher grades than homely ones, all other factors being equal, as numerous studies have found. The phenomenon is so well documented in science it even has a name: the attractiveness effect.

Now sociologist Michael T. French of the University of Miami and his colleagues have discovered yet another reason for plain kids with less-than-winning personalities to feel that the deck is stacked against them. In a paper on "Effects of Physical Attractiveness, Personality and Grooming on Academic Performance in High School", to be published in the August issue of Labour Economics, they find that the three factors in their title indeed affect students' GPA in high school. (Attractiveness, personality and grooming might affect grades in K-8, as well as college, too, but the researchers looked only at high school.) Physical attractiveness, they conclude, "has a positive and statistically significant impact on GPA for female students," as other studies have found (the effect also exists for males, but not in a statistically significant way—that is, it may be due to chance). But in a departure from past studies, they find that personality and grooming can boost GPA even more than beauty.

"Being very well groomed is associated with a statistically significant GPA premium," they write. "While grooming has the largest effect on GPA for male students, having a very attractive personality is most important for female students." More specifically:

The findings raise a host of intriguing questions. For instance, how do "beauty premiums" and "plainness penalties" work?(That's economist-speak for the fact that attractive people get paid more than homely ones—not just actors or waiters: good-looking accountants and even engineers generally earn more than plain ones). In particular, might the extra earnings reflect not a direct effect of beauty (bosses and customers unconsciously think more highly of attractive people, or are inclined to overlook their mistakes, and thus pay them more than their skills and experience justify) but an indirect one: that years of extra attention and rewards from teachers made attractive people more confident, smarter (because they received lots of positive feedback, they studied more) and thus genuinely more capable? For now, all we can say is that attractiveness and a winning personality boost grades when you're young, and may have an enduring effect once you enter the work force.

But there's something else I'm wondering. In this age of DNA, scientists are hunting for genes associated with intelligence. None have yet been found and verified, and two high-profile candidates recently flamed out (though press coverage of the failure to find a link between the genes, called microcephalin and ASPM, and IQ didn't get nearly the attention as the initial claim). But you can be sure such genes will eventually be discovered, and a study will report that people who carry them have a higher IQ than people who do not. Imagine the clamor for prenatal diagnostic testing and—who knows?—for using genetic screening in employment tests or college admissions.

Now let me connect the dots. When scientists link a gene to a trait, they seldom know exactly what the heck the gene actually does. So let's say they link gene X to IQ. Based on what's known about the beauty premium, and now on how personality can boost kids' GPA through mechanisms unrelated to actual brainpower, what if gene X is in fact producing a shapelier nose, or prettier eyes, or a sunny personality, and not, for instance, making synapses denser or brain neurons more efficient or causing some other effect that increases intelligence? How much do you want to bet that it will be hailed as a true IQ gene with all that entails (discrimination against those who have the wrong form being the most obvious), when in fact all it does is give people traits that society chooses to reward with (unmerited) higher grades and the resulting greater success in the work force? Just wondering.