B is for Beauty Bias

January 6, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The headlines make it pretty clear.
Attractive Students Get Higher Grades, Researchers Say

That’s from NewsweekSlate copied Scott Jaschik’s piece, “Graded on Looks,” at Inside Higher Ed and gave it the title, “Better-Looking Female Students Get Better Grades.”

But how much higher, how much better?

For female students, an increase of one standard deviation in attractiveness was associated with a 0.024 increase in grade (on a 4.0 scale).

The story is based on a paper by Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters presented at the American Economic Association meetings. 

You can read the IHE article for the methodology. I assume it’s solid. But for me the problem is that I don’t know if the difference is a lot or if it’s a mere speck of dust – statistically significant dust, but a speck nevertheless. It’s like the 2007 Price-Wolfers research on fouls in the NBA. White refs were more likely to call fouls on Black players than on Whites. Andrew Gelman (here), who is to statistics what Steph Curry is to the 3-pointer, liked the paper, so I have reservations about my reservations. But the degree of bias it found came to this: if an all-Black NBA team played a very hypothetical all-White NBA team in a game refereed by Whites, the refs’ unconscious bias would result in one extra foul called against the all-Blacks. 

I have the same problem with this beauty-bias paper. Imagine a really good-looking girl, one whose beauty is 2½ standard deviations above the mean – the beauty equivalent of an IQ of 137. Her average-looking counterpart with similar performance in the course gets a 3.00 – a B. But the stunningly attractive girl winds up with a 3.06 – a B.

The more serious bias reported in the paper is the bias against unattractive girls.

The least attractive third of women, the average course grade was 0.067 grade points below those earned by others.

It’s still not enough to lower a grade from B to B-, but perhaps the bias is greater against girls who are in the lower end of that lower third. The report doesn’t say.

Both these papers, basketball and beauty, get at something dear to the liberal heart – bias based on physical characteristics that the person has little power to change. And like the Implicit Association Test, they reveal that the evil may lurk even in the hearts and minds of those who think they are without bias. But if one foul in a game or one-sixth of a + or - appended to your letter grade on your GPA is all we had to worry about, I’d feel pretty good about the amount of bias in our world.

[Personal aside: the research I’d like to see would reverse the variables. Does a girl’s academic performance in the course affect her beauty score? Ask the instructor on day one to rate each student on physical attractiveness. Then ask him to rate them again at the end of the term. My guess is that the good students will become better looking.]

No comments: