Are Billionaires Hotter? Economists Study Whether The Ultra-Rich Are More Attractive.
Good looks might help you become a billionaire but probably won’t propel your net worth to the top of the Forbes list, a pair of economists suggested in an unusual new paper, the latest study in a growing body of research that attempts to put a price tag on attractiveness.
For a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this month, researchers asked a panel of 16 Australian university students to rate the appearance of more than 700 ultra-wealthy people whose net worth and photos were published in the Forbes 2008 billionaires list (the scale ranged from “very beautiful” to “not beautiful at all”).
Billionaires with larger net worths didn’t earn significantly higher attractiveness scores than less well-heeled members of the three-comma club, according to the paper, which was co-written by Barnard College distinguished scholar Daniel Hamermesh and economist and Australian member of parliament Andrew Leigh.
However, ultra-rich people may be better-looking than their less wealthy peers: The researchers matched the billionaires to similarly aged college professors whose looks were appraised by six undergraduates in a 2003 study, and billionaires earned a slightly higher rating on average, a result the study’s authors called a “loose comparison.”
“If beauty matters on average, those who are way above average have been pushed up there partly by their beauty,” Hamermesh, who works as a research fellow at German labor economics institute IZA, told Forbes. “But additional looks within that group [of ultra-rich people] are not going to make any difference.”
Hamermesh has spent decades researching how beauty impacts economic fortunes, a surprisingly robust corner of study sometimes known as “pulchronomics.” Attractive people tend to earn more money, secure more favorable loans and report higher levels of life satisfaction than less good-looking peers, and some research suggests beauty can help people get ahead in politics, business, sports and academia, Hamermesh says. However, this “beauty premium” doesn’t appear to boost billionaires’ fortunes: “This group is so extreme that within it, nothing matters to raise you from a $2-billionaire to a $50-billionaire,” he told Forbes.
Yes, beauty is subjective, and the NBER study is based on just 16 college students’ assessments. Still, Hamermesh believes these panelists’ answers are reliable because they tend to align with each other in most cases. In other words, Hamermesh thinks beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but “we tend to behold it very similarly.”
So, which billionaires are the most attractive? British entrepreneur David Ross (whose net worth fell below $1 billion in late 2008) and BMW part-owner Stefan Quandt (currently worth $23.2 billion) earned the two highest marks on the 2008 list, Hamermesh told Forbes. On the other end of the scale, now-deceased Las Vegas resort magnate Kirk Kerkorian took the lowest spot, followed by New York supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, whose fortune currently stands at $3.7 billion. Catsimatidis told Forbes in a statement that fashion has “never been a priority”: Many billionaires don’t dress extravagantly, he says, and he identifies more closely with working people than the ultrawealthy. “I usually wear decent suits which offer good value, not expensive, not overpriced,” Catsimatidis wrote. “As a member of the Forbes 400, I do not have to prove anything to anyone by being a flashy dresser.”
4.76. That was the average attractiveness rating awarded to billionaires, slightly below the scale’s midpoint of 5.5. This harsh — and perhaps unfair — assessment may be because the Forbes listees had an average age north of 60 in 2008, which could skew the results. “Older people are rated worse,” even if panelists are asked to ignore age, said Hamermesh.
Men, people who inherited part of their wealth and people based in Western countries had somewhat higher net worths than their counterparts on the 2008 Forbes list, according to the NBER paper. It’s a fairly typical theme: Just 14% of this year’s Forbes 400 — which ranks the 400 wealthiest people in the United States — were women, and 118 inherited at least some of their wealth.