Beauty as a fitness indicator

study by Berri and colleagues on quarterback performance and their attractiveness has gained some attention over the last couple of months:

We show that attractiveness, as measured by facial symmetry, leads to greater rewards in professional sports. National Football League quarterbacks who are more attractive are paid greater salaries and this premium persists after controlling for player performance.

This is relatively consistent with the picture painted in Dan Hamermesh’s Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, which I reviewed recently. There is a premium to beauty. But as I noted in my review, we should not ignore the correlation between beauty and other positive traits. An earlier study by Williams and colleagues puts the first study in perspective:

Results from a preliminary study showed a positive correlation between 30 NFL QBs’ passer ratings and their facial attractiveness as rated by 30 women. In a further study, a different group of 30 women rated a different cohort of 58 NFL QBs. The results showed that the QBs’ mean attractiveness ratings were positively correlated with their passer ratings, which was found to be independent of players’ age, ethnicity, height, weight, or facial expression.

These two studies can be easily reconciled – attractive quarterbacks are (on average) higher performers, but they also gain a premium above their performance. Whether that beauty premium comes from intangible elements such as self-confidence and leadership, or from bias by team owners, is unclear. One possibility is that, as football is a spectator sport and income depends on sponsorship and media, attractiveness has a financial value in itself.

It is also unclear what mechanism underlies the higher performance by attractive athletes that Williams and colleagues discovered. Is the mechanism directly beauty related, in that improved communication with teammates improves their own performance? Or, as I would argue, do positive traits tend to cluster? Beauty is a fitness indicator, so a lower mutation or parasite load, which would affect athletic performance, might also affect beauty. Further, assortive mating tends to match smart, beautiful and athletic partners, making their children smarter, more beautiful and more athletic than average.

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