Beauty Before Brains?

Most of you personal finance junkies (such as myself) are probably familiar with the idea that there are two ways to grow your net worth: spend less or earn more. Earning more generally relates to growing your career, but not always. What if earning more were simply associated with how you look? Well, a recent article I read in HR Management indicates that the more "competent" people think you look, the more you earn.

The study, which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, asked 2,000 people to assess the images of CEOs (of both large and small companies) alongside non-executives. In almost all cases, participants thought the CEOs were more attractive and capable-looking than their non-executive counterparts, although there is no real evidence that looking capable actually equates to better performance. In addition to examining the relationship between looks and success, the researchers explored the relationship between appearance and salary. They found that CEOs who appeared competent also had higher salaries.

Another article I read in Newsweek titled "Beauty Before Brains" found interestingly similar results with high school students: Those who were considered to be more attractive earned higher grades than their less-attractive peers. All of this should come as no surprise, since numerous studies have shown essentially the same thing. What this article points out, however, is that a recent study by a University of Miami professor found that personality and grooming are at least as important to boosting high students' GPAs as their beauty, if not more so.

I think this also helps to explain the results in the CEO attractiveness study: While the CEOs may not actually be more competent, they did project something in their photographs that led people to rate them as both more attractive and more competent than non-executives. In short, there was something about their personality and dress that the viewer translated into success.


Personality counts in innumerable ways at work. It's common sense that how you relate to others (and how well you relate your ideas to others) is far more important than perfecting the idea itself. People give preference to those with whom they have a relationship.

Consider, for a minute, an example from my work: We are supposed to objectively rate loans (let's say we simply rate them "good" or "bad" for simplicity). I can't tell you how many times we have ended up rating a business's loans "good" even though the borrower is struggling with capacity to repay simply because we are personally familiar with the borrower and have confidence in their character. It's likely that they have an engaging, reliable personality that leads us to believe they will repay the loan, even if the numbers don't show it.

(By the way, this is not a bad or unethical practice. Considering a borrower's character — personality — is essential to understanding a credit).

Bottom line: Personality will get you far in life. Cultivate a good one by showing concern for others and confidence in yourself.

Grooming: Dress for Success

"Being very well groomed is associated with a statistically significant GPA premium," writes sociologist Michael T. French (via the Newsweek article). No surprise there, either. Being well-groomed equates to dressing for success in the working world or, as I like to say it, "dressing for your boss's job." Common sense there, too, for some of us. A very broad rule of thumb, I'd say, is that if you'd feel proud to wear it out for a girls' weekend in Vegas, you should probably never debut it at work.

So what are your thoughts on the matter? Are beauty, personality, and grooming by far the most important things needed to get ahead in the working world? Or do intelligence and hard work matter more? You tell me.

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Amy Lu's picture
Amy Lu

I want to think that beauty, personality, and grooming will get your foot in the door but intelligence and hard work will carry you through. How much they matter would also depend on your industry/job. For me and my work-at-home job, grooming isn't a huge issue. :p

Guest's picture

I've read similar stories but I'm a little surprised that it translates to high school students as well. When I think of the "smart kids" from when I was in high school, I think of the gawky, poorly dressed nerds. The attractive students were the ones that goofed off and did poorly in school (jocks, cheerleaders, etc).

And though I believe some of the studies I've seen regarding workplace success and beauty, being an attractive young female in an engineering career certainly hasn't done me any favors. Though people generally like my personality, I think they might see me as less capable (potentially the bimbo-type in a male-dominated workforce) even though my work has always been great quality. Of course, things may be very different at other companies.

Just an observation from the other side of the fence.

Janey Osterlind's picture

Good comments! And Courtney, your observation reminds me of another article I saw recently in Newsweek called "Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful" ( It essentially says that pretty women are often seen as "too feminine," and therefore unsuited for leadership positions. Interesting thoughts on the other side of the coin, as you said.

Guest's picture

I think this is obvious and also not an entirely irrational phenomenon. It's probably most evident in sales professionals. Being "attractive" not only gets you in the door but incites the client to give you more eye contact and pay more attention to you - and by extension, your product or service. Those people are going to be more successful and make more money on average.

But it's not just about looks - the study lumped together those who looked "attractive and more capable looking." This has to do a lot with dress, posture, expression, tone, and grooming - it's not just about being pretty vs ugly.

Guest's picture


Turns out that studies show that looks factor more into the hiring and promotion of men than women. Go figure. I'm of the mindset that if you have energy and passion for what you do, you'll end up being successful - regardless of beauty or brains!