Recent research in psychology published in the journal Economic Letters reveals that attractive students tend to achieve higher grades in school. However, the study suggests that this beauty premium disappears when classes are taught remotely, especially for female students.
Numerous studies have indicated that physical appearance influences a person’s success. Attractive people usually earn more money and report higher life satisfaction than their less attractive counterparts. However, scholars have yet to agree on the explanation behind this beauty premium.
Adrian Mehic, a graduate student at Lund University and the author of the study, aimed to investigate beauty-based discrimination in the educational setting. Mehic conducted a natural experiment to explain the beauty premium.
The study investigated the effect of student attractiveness on university grades during both in-person and remote instruction. This design allowed the study author to isolate the effect of appearance since student-teacher interaction is much lower during remote instruction than in-person instruction.
Any attractiveness advantage observed during remote classes is more likely due to a productivity-enhancing effect than discrimination.
Participant in the study
Mehic obtained data from five different cohorts of engineering students from a Swedish university, resulting in a final sample of 307 students. Two of these cohorts attended a portion of their classes remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed instruction online. The content of these courses stayed the same, but lectures and seminars were conducted online. An independent sample of 74 individuals rated the attractiveness of the students’ faces to obtain an attractiveness score for each student.
The results of the study revealed that the beauty premium was evident in traditional in-person instruction. For non-quantitative courses taught entirely online, student attractiveness was positively correlated with student grades. However, this effect was not found for quantitative courses.
The switch to online instruction eliminated the beauty premium for female students in non-quantitative courses. Attractive female students saw a decline in their grades with remote instruction. However, attractive male students continued to enjoy a beauty advantage.
According to the study author, these findings suggest that discrimination most likely explains the beauty premium for female students. For male students, beauty seems to be a productivity-enhancing attribute.
Mehic stated that the main takeaway from the study is that there is a beauty premium for both males and females when teaching is in-person instruction, but for females, this effect disappeared when teaching was conducted online. This suggests that the beauty premium for males is due to some productive attribute, such as higher self-confidence, whereas discrimination causes the beauty premium for women.
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Mehic discussed several reasons why physical attractiveness might enhance productivity for male students. Male students who are physically attractive tend to be more persistent and have a greater influence on their peers.
Attractive people also tend to have more social skills, which have been linked to creativity. Since non-quantitative courses tend to involve creative assignments and group work, men who are more attractive might be more likely to excel in this coursework.
The study author noted that more research is needed to determine precisely why discrimination based on appearance happens.