It pays to be pretty, starting in high school, research says

Image; Prom
The researchers found that, starting as early as high school, more attractive people were rated as more intelligent and more promising.Robert Nickelsberg / Today

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By Allison Linn

Those awkward teenage years may be costing people more than just a date at the prom.

A new research paper finds that attractive young adults enjoy a pay advantage over their less attractive peers, and that advantage starts building as early as high school.

“There may be this kind of snowballing effect across time,” said Rachel Gordon, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and one of the study’s co-authors.

The researchers found that, starting as early as high school, more attractive people were rated as more intelligent and more promising. They also got higher grades and were more likely to graduate from college than their peers.

Gordon said those early successes and confidence boosters may create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the attractive high school students end up being more successful in adulthood.

That boost can have long-term consequences on how much money you earn. Past research has shown that that both women and men enjoy a wage bonus for having above-average looks, and can suffer a wage penalty if they have below-average looks. That’s along with other economic advantages prettier people enjoy.

Gordon said the new research shows that the origins of that advantage may start well before adulthood. That could raise awareness about what high school teachers and administrators can do to mitigate the effects of what they dub “lookism,” and help less attractive students feel more included and confident.

The findings are based on a long-running, federal funded study of youth, along with supplemental data the researchers collected at one specific high school, Gordon said.

The long-running study asked interviewers to rate the respondents’ attractiveness along with the other data, allowing the researchers to correlate attractiveness with other achievements.

There were some disadvantages to being more attractive in high school, Gordon said. The researchers found that the more attractive teens also were more likely to drink heavily and have more sexual partners.

Those activities didn’t derail their success, she said, but it may have diminished it.

“The grade advantage would have been even bigger if they hadn’t been more likely to behave in that riskier (way),” she said.

Allison Linn is a reporter at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn or send her an e-mail.