December 1, 2009

Why are those who benefit the least from beauty products the most likely to use them?

It's something of a puzzle why beautiful women use all sorts of make-up, sink big bucks into their hair style, collect expensive jeans, and so on. If a 9 could leave the house without even showering and turn every man's head, why does she spend so much time, money, and effort into prettying herself up? It hardly seems to add any further beauty. Even more puzzling is the fact that women who could enjoy a relatively big boost to their looks from these products have almost no interest in them. If a 4 could jump a full point or two by making the same investment as the 9 in make-up, hair styling, flattering clothing, etc., surely we'd expect the 4 to be bonkers about beauty and the 9 to be securely carefree about her looks.

The short answer is that the 9 has a comparative advantage in looks, while the 4 doesn't.

Let's say there are two dimensions that women would compete against each other on, looks and ambition. Guys prefer both because looks signal her genetic quality and ambition means you won't have to spend so much to support her -- you could live in a nicer house, send your kids to more prestigious schools, etc. Blessed by fortune, Riley scores 9 on looks and 7 on ambition, while the less fortunate Mabel scores 4 on looks and 6 on ambition. Clearly every guy would prefer Riley because she scores higher on both things that they care about. But some of them aren't going to have a snowball's chance in hell with her, and they'll listen to Mabel's sales pitch.

Even though Riley could emphasize either trait and demonstrate her superiority, the contrast between her and Mabel is greatest on the dimension of looks. So if she wants a slam dunk, she'll try to compete with Mabel on looks. Mabel recognizes that she's inferior on both dimensions, but she only looks a tiny bit worse on ambition, rather than catastrophically worse on looks. So if she wants to minimize the guys' perception of her inferiority compared to Riley, she'll try to compete based on ambition. Competing on looks requires spending time, money, and effort on beauty products, while competing on ambition requires little such spending.

So we have people who appear to not really need beauty products, from a value-added calculation, and yet who devote their discretionary time, money, and effort to them. Good-looking women buy beauty products not because they get a bigger bang for their buck than do ugly women (it would be the other way around), but because good-looking women are competing based on looks and ugly women are competing on some other dimension where mascara and butt-sculpting jeans are irrelevant.

Wait -- what if Riley was a 9 on looks and a 10 on ambition, and Mabel was a 4 on looks and a 2 on ambition? The gap in looks is the same as before, but now the ambition gap is even larger, so now Riley should want to compete on ambition and Mabel on looks.

But let's remember what the reality is: good-looking people obsess more over their looks than ugly people. That must mean that the real world is more like the first scenario than the second. The reason is probably regression to the mean. If Riley is a 9 on looks, she's very high above the average, so if we look at how she scores on some other trait, it may also be above-average -- because of good genes, a favorable environment, good luck, or whatever -- but it likely won't be as high as the first. Similarly, if Mabel is a 4 on looks, she's extremely below-average, so if we check her on some other trait, it may also be below-average (for the same reasons as before) but it'll probably be not quite so below-average.

Every person is a list of points that show where they score on all the many dimensions of attractiveness. They generally aren't radically different; people above-average in one desirable trait tend to be so in others as well. There's a kind of center of gravity that their various scores hover around. When we notice someone who's a 9 on looks, we don't know where their center of gravity is -- it could be that most of their values hover around 7 or 8, and the 9 is their upper outlier; or it could be that most of their values hover around 10, and the 9 is their lower outlier! But because it's more likely that someone's center of gravity is closer to the population average, rather than farther away, the 9 on looks is more likely to score 7 than 10 on something else like ambition.

For the same reason, it could be that a 4 on looks has a center of gravity that's 6 and looks is their weak suit, or it could be that their center of gravity is actually 2 and looks is their strong suit. Again, we're more likely to observe someone with a center of gravity closer to the population average, so the 4 on looks probably does better on average on other traits.

To try stating it more clearly, if we look at all women who score 9 on looks, many more of them will have their trait-wide average below 9 than above 9. And when we look at all women who score 4 on looks, many more of them will have their trait-wide average above 4 than below 4. That puts us in the first world we looked at, although with some exceptions. There are women who score 8 on looks but 10 on ambition, and we expect them to buck the trend as good-looking women who don't care that much about how they look, but who instead slave night and day to get a leg up on their competition in the job market.

And of course there are the odd women who score 4 on looks but 2 on ambition. These women couldn't care less about their education or career, and even though they have little to show off, they devote most of their time to playing it up -- "I don't care what anybody else says, I know these Juicy track pants make me look good!"

Finally, this applies to men, too: the 9 on looks is more likely than the 4 to use skin moisturizer, wear flattering clothes, and so on, because most good-looking guys score a bit lower on other traits and most ugly guys score a bit higher on other traits. Again, there are exceptional guys who invest more in other pursuits despite being good-looking, as well as the occasional ugly dude who spends all his time showing off his repulsive face and body because that's sadly his strong suit.

Anyway, the take-home message is that people invest in playing up their forte, rather than in the trait that will give them the greatest improvement, to try to shift the competition into an arena where they have a comparative advantage.

There's the further fact that women who enter into the looks-based competition will all be fairly good-looking, so that whatever minuscule improvement they can get from make-up, etc., might be worth the money. But this is just an arms race -- all will buy flattering jeans, wear nice make-up, and so on, so that the ranking among them is largely unaffected by investing in beauty products. If we weren't careful, we might only see this aspect of it and conclude that good-looking women spending so much on make-up was a purely wasteful arms race.

But in reality they're blowing all that time and money in order to shift the competition to one based on looks rather than any of the other dimensions that they could be judged on. That's what gets you access to the top tier of suitors -- you at least get your foot in the door, regardless of how you'll end up relative to the rest of the minority who get their foot in the door.


  1. That 9s and 10s spend a lot of time and money on their looks doesn't surprise me, because--at least from a female's point of view--there's no such things as too much of what looks bring: attention from the most desirable males. Also, and more importantly, all women know know that there is really no such thing as a 10, it's theoretical...but the 9s will ever be striving for it.

  2. Aloo, 9s tend to see themselves as competing with other 9s and are therefore not necessarily so secure. Think of the modeling industry: the best looking girl in high school goes to a cattle call and sees a dozen other drop-dead gorgeous women.

    My experience of attractive women is that they are not so secure.


  3. "9s tend to see themselves as competing with other 9s"

    That's not just their perception -- it's the reality. The 4s, 5s, and most 6s don't compete so much for access to mates based on looks.

    That's the puzzle we're looking at: why don't the 4s and 5s invest in make-up, flattering clothing, etc., when they'd get a much greater bang for their buck than a 9 would?

  4. I think it depends whether the person's weakness is above or below average. If your weakness is below average, no matter what door you get your foot into, your options will always be limited. Once your weakness reaches average, you have much greater choice.

    It seems it would be most important that you're "good enough" in each dimension before focusing too much where you're already ahead.

  5. The reason why uglies don't invest in looks is Tom Wolfe's concept of the "fiction absolute": A person or group will adopt a set of values that would make their particular attributes the most prized in society.

    Thus, an ugly girl doesn't bother investing in her appearance because she needs to convince herself that looks don't matter and that only shallow retards would discriminate based on looks.

  6. I like what HumanTom said because it rings true.

    What about 6's that doll themselves up to look like an 8? Often you can see through them but if you can't and you see them without their makeup it's a shocking experience.

    Ever notice how slim, attractive women are labeled "Not Real Women" by the less attractive ones. Calling an attractive woman "An unfair representation of their kind" is as bad or worse than calling a fat woman fat. I see these so called "impostor" women everywhere and I imagine they run rampant in healthier cities across the globe.

  7. Token Female1/5/10, 4:10 PM

    just to give you the female perspective - IMO, the average and below average looking women don't doll themselves up for a few main reasons. 1) they lack self esteem (because they are unattractive they don't get much male attention, and so they don't think highly enough of themselves to improve themselves in order to get more attention - and thus it's a never ending cycle of low self esteem). 2) in order to make yourself look good, you need a certain level of social awareness and the ability to understand what styles/products etc improve you. the socially awkward, nerdier girls can't figure this out by themselves. 3) looking good requires the intelligence to know that you must eat in moderation - not everyone is that smart or disciplined. for why the attractive women "waste" so much time maintaining their looks - nothing feels worse than not getting male attention when you are used to it! so women maintain their looks. and equally, women silently compete with each other on looks, weight & fashion. ---- for what it's worth, I am in my early thirties, weigh the same as I did in college, and would never appear in public without fashionable clothes that fit well, tastefully applied make up and my (long) hair styled.


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