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Starting in 2017, Thai media published a series of articles on the country’s growing class of “new poor people,” former incarcerees who were finding it almost impossible to get hired and often returning to prison as a result. Criminal records were an obvious barrier to finding a job, observed economics professor Thanee Chaiwat, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Center for Behavioral and Experimental Economics, who had started investigating the pattern. But he wondered whether there was a more insidious bias at play: the applicants’ attractiveness.
Chaiwat tested his theory, sending digitally beautified mugshots and unedited mugshots to 450 companies, alongside questionnaires annotated with variables like salary expectations and career experience. The results blew him away. Employers were substantially more likely to hire the photoshopped applicants for under-the-table jobs, and favored them even more for jobs in the formal economy. The touched-up candidates also received higher salary offers.
Today, the so-called beauty premium begins at birth.
His follow-up study included the job seekers’ criminal records alongside photos. Employers once again selected the more attractive applicants (except when they had records of violence and drug offenses). Chaiwat published the data in 2021 in Thailand and the World Economy Journal. His research, he wrote, supported previous economic studies around the globe that found that “more attractive workers are more economically successful” and concluded that “cosmetic surgery [can] provide the positive impact to ex-prisoners’ success of re-entry.”
This suggestion may seem unorthodox. But consider how deeply lookism is entrenched in cultures the world over. In biblical times, people with facial scars, asymmetry, eczema, and other “deformities” were barred from entering the holy temple, lest their presence profane it. This bigotry was a precursor to the physiognomy and phrenology movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, a racist…