The Agenda

Catherine Hakim on Erotic Capital

Catherine Hakim, a renowned sociologist at the London School of Economics, has been working on a new project centered on the concept of “erotic capital,” a counterpart to economic, cultural, social, and human capital. She’s written a short essay on the subject for Prospect:

The economic benefits of being physically and socially attractive can be substantial, especially in marketing, public relations, television, advocacy in the courts, as well as for actors, singers and dancers. But it’s broader than this: people working in the better-paid parts of the private sector are more attractive than those in the public and non-profit sectors. Tall and attractive people are more likely to be employed in professional jobs, like law or banking. For the ugly and short, it gets worse. Good-looking people can earn 10 to 15 per cent more than the average-looking, who in turn can earn 10 to 15 per cent more than the plain or ugly. The tall earn more than the short; the obese have earnings 10 to 15 per cent below average. Statistical analysis shows this beauty premium is not really just about cleverly disguised differences in intelligence, social class or self-confidence. Studies of lawyers reveal that there is always a premium for attractiveness that varies in size, but is not due to employer discrimination. The most attractive can earn 12 per cent more than the unattractive, and are 20 per cent more likely to achieve partnership in their firm, because they are more effective at pulling in customers.

This isn’t news in itself. But Hakim provides a valuable framework for understanding the phenomenon. The attractiveness gap in earnings “can be as big as the gap between having a degree and no qualifications at all,” thus suggesting that investment in erotic capital is a particularly shrewd strategy for those who suffer from deficits in economic, cultural, social, and human capital.

This brings to mind the danger of entrenchment. LSE psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has written on the connection between beauty and intelligence:

If more intelligent men are more desirable to women than less intelligent men, because they achieve higher status, at least in the modern environment, and if physically more attractive women are more desirable to men than physically less attractive women, then there should be assortative mating of intelligent men and beautiful women, and of less intelligent men and less beautiful women.  Because both intelligence and physical attractiveness are heritable, such assortative mating should create an extrinsic (non-causal) correlation between intelligence and physical attractiveness in the next generation.  Children of intelligent men and attractive women should simultaneously be intelligent and beautiful, and children of less intelligent men and less attractive women should simultaneously be less intelligent and less attractive.

So which theory is correct?  We don’t know yet for sure.  Available empirical evidence does support all crucial causal links in the second theory:  More intelligent men do attain higher status than less intelligent men; higher-status men do marry more beautiful women than lower-status men; intelligence is heritable; and physical attractiveness is heritable.  So there is some empirical evidence to support the second theory, but more research is necessary to adjudicate between the two theories.

As Hakim mentions in her conclusion, cosmetic surgery is seen as a tool for upward social mobility in Brazil, and one imagines the phenomenon will grow increasingly widespread. The idea of investing in cosmetic surgery rather than a college degree is disturbing to those of us of a bourgeois bent, but it might be the right choice for some.  

Hakim’s concept of erotic capital is a useful reminder that inequality is a multidimensional phenomenon.

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