January 6, 2008

Who's better looking: artists or scientists?

Well, artists, obviously. (I'm including things like design with art, and things like engineering with science.) Most of my readers know already what the typical group of graduate students or science professionals looks like, and regardless of how this compares to a random sample from the population, it's nothing like a group of artists or designers.

Since scientists tend not to hang out with artists, perhaps a few visual aids will help. Consider the first season of Project Runway, the fashion design reality show. I'm looking just at the first season because they were the most talented -- each season thereafter included people who tried out for, but weren't chosen for a previous season. The point holds for the later seasons, but you really see it in the first one. Here is a gallery of their pictures. To see them more in the flesh, you can watch the entire first season by clicking on the "littlespot" channel in this search. Around page 11 of his channel are the first season episodes. (An added bonus of this season is that the models are the best looking group of all four seasons.)

For the females, Alexandra looks like a bikini model, and Nora and Starr are also quite attractive, with Kara Saun somewhat less so. Vanessa has a manly face but is at worst average, and Wendy is a 40 year-old overweight mother, so she may not look as attractive as she may have once been. She appears to have dieted and had some kind of plastic surgery after the show, and looks slightly above-average. Remember: plastic surgery can't perform miracles, so this is probably what she looked like when she was younger.

For the males, I can't judge, so maybe female readers can rate their physical attractiveness. But I can still tell that Mario looks pretty good (you may have to see him on the show), and perhaps Robert too.

If you want a better idea, a crude but effective way to see this is to go to hair salons where the men's haircuts start at about $25 -- not necessarily the most expensive, but some place where the stylists will be selected for talent. A similar percentage of the female hair stylists there will be good-looking. Compare the percentage of lookers within this group to their counterparts at an engineering firm or research lab of a similar level of talent. Or if you live near a good design school (RISD, Parsons, Pratt, etc.), you can observe the looks of its students compared to a good engineering school (MIT, Carnegie Mellon, etc.).

What accounts for the better looks of artists? Continuing two previous posts on attractive songbirds and brainy fashion models, I suggest that there is greater cross-assortative mating between talented males and attractive females within the artistic vs. the scientific community. We know that rockstars and musicians are far more likely to mate with attractive females, compared to male scientists, so something similar must be going on with male visual artists and good-looking girls.

Both artists and scientists are hardworking, creative, and smart -- specifically, in a more visuospatial than verbal way, so it's not like the case with writers or lead singers, whose verbal skills may aid them in seducing women or attracting groupies. But artists on average have more of a bad-boy personality that attractive females seem to prefer. In this way, the children of the hot mom and talented dad will tend to possess the qualities of each parent, so that over time artists will look better than scientists.

There is actually an empirical test that this idea could be put to. First, check that the looks-talent correlation really is due to something like cross-assortative mating. You can check that by seeing if the better-looking siblings within a family also tend to be the more talented ones. You don't need a scalar measurement of talent or looks (as we have with height), just a rank correlation would do. The prediction is that looks and talent will correlate hardly at all within a family -- the siblings are choosing genes from the same parents, but it's at random, so a sibling can't choose to get the best from each parent. The opposite finding would suggest that a property of individuals were at work, such as genes that have effects both on looks and talent, or sheer chance (i.e., the sibling with the least amount of bad luck would therefore be better looking and more talented).

Then you could test the preferences of attractive females -- if forced to choose, would they rather have sex with an artist or scientist? You may have to work out some wrinkles in the wording ("have sex with," "have kids with," "marry," etc.), but that's a little detail. The prediction is that attractive females would prefer artists to scientists. There's no need to test the alternative that attractive but untalented males pair up with talented but unattractive females -- that's not what happens in general, let alone among artists and scientists (since any ranking of artistic or scientific talent will show a preponderance of males).

There's another explanation: that being attractive helps your career more as an artist than a scientist. Perhaps you have to meet with clients more as an artist or designer, and people trust the beautiful more than the homely, so that better looking artists climb the career ladder more easily. This assumes that there is no real correlation between looks and talent -- the apparent correlation would just be due to the politics of the art world.

I don't buy that, though, since as I showed in the "brainy models" post, the correlation between looks and smarts is real. It's not as if models are chosen based on their college-level intelligence -- you have the right frame or you don't, you can walk well or you can't, and so on. The ability to pass college-level science or economics courses is not involved. Maybe a Machiavellian personality could help you make up for a lack of "model looks," but that's a personality trait, not a facet of fluid intelligence (puzzle-solving).

So if someone has the free time, resources, and interest, there's a little project that's already pretty much set up.


  1. There's no need to test the alternative that attractive but untalented males pair up with talented but unattractive females

    Although as a Julliard student, I noticed that females who weren't ugly, but just sort of average, but were talented in a performing art (dancer, singer, musician, etc.), were able to punch above their weight in the dating arena. I've found myself subject to this as well - a girl that wouldn't have really caught my attention just based on a photo suddenly becomes considerably more alluring once I've witnessed her display her talent as a dancer or musician. These girls often seem to have more charisma, which can also make them seem prettier than they are.

    I also noticed that some of the female performers seemed more likely to date and marry wealthy men than their looks would suggest, especially the more successful they were as artists. These guys appeared to really dig parading around their artist gf/wife.

    I always put this down to the aforementioned allure & glamour of the talented performing artist and that it's probably a status symbol to date someone who is well-known & admired for their talent. And maybe if you're a banker, there's something especially attractive about an arty-type.

    There's another explanation: that being attractive helps your career more as an artist than a scientist.

    I would agree with this (for men & women) when it comes to the types of performing arts I mentioned above. A beautiful woman or handsome man who is also a fairly talented performing artist will get way more media attention, more fans, and higher sales than a homelier one at the same or even somewhat higher level of talent. I can think of a few Kournikova's of the arts - certainly have talent but the attention they receive is not proportionate with it.

    Come to think of it, this also probably helps writers as well - my sister is a writer and when I tag along with her to her parties there is always, always a crab fest where all the writers grumble about yet another attractive young writer that has scored a lucrative publishing deal for their first book which will undoubtably feature an enormous photo of them on the back.

  2. I could see that for dancers or (maybe) singers, but that's why I'm talking here about visual artists or designers, who don't perform or do girly things (sewing is girly, but that's not design).

    And you're talking about successful guys who want an artist gf / wife -- but what we have to worry about is whether talented but homely females are pairing up with hunky but dopey males. No siree.

    I'm not suggesting that looks and talent correlate perfectly -- just whether they correlate positively, with magnitude great enough that you'd notice it.

    So, sure, some people get more attention than they deserve because they're good-looking, but that's why we take averages. Is the average female dancer better-looking than the average female? Than the average female physicist? Etc.

    As for writers, most of them are lousy: it's the easiest of the arts to do -- and to fake -- since using language comes naturally to us (composing music is the hardest). So the crabbers at those parties may not be much more talented than the good-looking ones who get book deals.

    Frankly, the envious will always find something to point to among the winners to cast aspersions on their talent. Like, "Oh, that panel of judges just prefers someone with formal training, and they can't handle the raw-edged talent of a self-taught artist." Translation: my work is sloppy due to lack of training and experience.

    So, if better-looking people are more charismatic, which helps them punch above their weight business-wise, maybe that also helps them to better seduce the reader into believing that their fiction is real.

  3. I'm a web designer. I know I inherited my artistic talents from my father, and a bit of my programming abilities from my mother who preferred math and science.

    Even when I was in pre-school I was good at drawing and art. I was also a hideous, I mean absolutely hideous child. So much so that my relatives called me ugly. My favorite story was the ugly duckling.

    I think girls who have an artistic eye start to change their appearances consciously around teenagehood so that they appear more attractive. That's what I did. I never wore makeup, but I did subtle things. I also strived to not gain a lot of weight.

    Maybe it is simply a matter of better visual taste among women in the arts vs. women in the sciences.

  4. I'm sorry to be late to comment, but looking at "reality" shows is a bad way to judge the reality of anything. Obviously they only pick attractive looking people to compete. Who wants to watch ugly people on TV?

    I'm not disagreeing that the average engineering student is geekier than average, but art schools tend to attract a lot of gothapotamus types.


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