Friday, June 08, 2007

Smart blondes

Do good looks, high income and intelligence go together?
Do some folk really have it all?
A married couple were awakened by a call at 2 a.m. The wife, a blonde, picked up the phone, listened a moment and said, "How should I know, that's 200 miles from here!" and hung up. Her husband asked, "Who was that?" She replied, "I don't know; some woman wanting to know if the coast is clear."
There are thousands of dumb blond jokes and almost as many jokes about the lack of intelligence among athletes. But in fact, according to Robert Frank, blondes should be more intelligent, on average, than others for four reasons.

(1) men generally place greater emphasis on looks;
(2) women generally place greater emphasis on income and status.
(Men do care about a woman’s income or status and women care about a man’s appearance but the relative strengths of these concerns differ for men and women).
(3) more-intelligent men tend to achieve higher income and status.
(4) both intelligence and physical attractiveness are traits with significant inheritable components.

Propositions (1)-(3) imply that attractive women will pair up with intelligent men while (4) implies that the offspring of such unions will tend to display above-average values of both traits. So beauty and brains go together. This view as Frank notes is consistent with economic evidence showing that attractive people earn more. Plain women tend to marry men with poor educations.
‘By similar reasoning, if gentlemen prefer blondes, fair-haired women should pair more often with intelligent, more successful men, and since hair color is at least weakly inheritable, a positive correlation should also emerge between blondness and intelligence.'
What, then, accounts for dumb blonde jokes? The logic that governs decisions about investment in education and training suggests an answer. How intelligent you appear to others depends not only on your native mental abilities, but also on the extent to which you cultivate them through investment in education. In turn, the extent to which a person pursues such investments in “human capital” depends on how their returns compare with those for alternative investments.

'If blondes are perceived as more attractive, then being blond may create valuable opportunities that do not require onerous investments in education and training. The dumb blonde stereotype may thus stem from the fact that blondes rationally choose to invest less than others in education and other forms of human capital.

The human capital story suggests a similar rationale for the dumb athlete stereotype. Contrary to popular impressions, intelligence and athletic ability may be slightly positively correlated in the population as a whole. The link shouldn’t be surprising. It is the brain, after all, that controls the body.

But because gifted athletes enjoy many attractive social and employment opportunities that others do not, they may rationally choose to invest less, on average, in human capital. The dumb athlete stereotype is further reinforced by the fact that varsity athletes at any given university are actually less intelligent than their classmates, since many were admitted primarily on the strength of their athletic skills, not because of their academic achievements.

If each university admitted people whose last name begins with the letter “M” with SAT scores 400 points lower that those of other applicants, the false impression would quickly form that people with names like Martin and McDermott were mentally deficient. It is the same with athletes. The bottom line is that popular perceptions about the intelligence of blondes and athletes may stem more from the academic choices made by members of these groups and from choices that others make about them than from any innate differences in mental ability.

Or perhaps jealous brunettes and nonathletes with time on their hands simply sit around making up jokes about their rivals’.


christine said...

Well as a currently brunette non-athlete, I know which answer I'd prefer to give.

Perhaps there is some way of determmining this on the blondes front by kids whose hair colour changed as they got older (as did mine)? Or would it have to change after the peak dating periods of life for it to be able to distinguish between the genes and investment hypotheses?

hc said...


Can't you just correlate IQ and measures of academic effort with a measure of beauty?

christine said...

Not that many useful data sets that have academic effort in them (how would you measure it? Hours spent, or only hours spent while not also trolling the blogosphere, eg?), so we end up only using outcomes, most of the time.

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