Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lindsay Tanner Goes Gaga Over Susan Boyle

Lindsay Tanner writes that he was "overjoyed" when he first read about Susan Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent. A recent post at Stumbling and Mumbling suggests why.

The economics of Susan Boyle ...... 1. The power of the contrast effect. Ms Boyle’s singing talent is magnified by the contrast between it and her ugliness and - yes - mild learning difficulties. ... This contrast effect is a powerful influence upon our perceptions. If you put your hand in a bucket of lukewarm water, it’ll feel cold if your hand had previously been in hot water, but warm if it had been in cold. And it has important implications. In Influence, Robert Cialdini cites research which shows that men shown pictures of average-looking women whilst watching Charlie’s Angels judged them to be uglier than they did if shown the same pictures during other TV shows; women suffered by comparison to Farrah. The damage done by the “beauty myth” is down to the contrast effect.....

2. The ubiquity of statistical discrimination. .... We were prejudiced against Ms Boyle because she was ugly.This is a widespread prejudice. Ugly people, on average and controlling for other things, earn less than good-looking ones, with the penalty for ugliness being generally larger than the premium for beauty. It’s for this reason that criminals are more likely to be ugly; munters have worse labour market prospects, and so are more likely to turn to crime.

However, this bias against the ugly is not pure spite. The audience’s low expectations of Ms Boyle were well-founded, because very few successful singers are ugly - even the ones who aren’t conventionally handsome have charisma; Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand come to mind precisely because they are rare exceptions. Similarly, there’s evidence that good-looking people are genuinely more productive than ugly ones - perhaps because teachers give them more attention in school and so develop their talents.

3. Efficiency vs. justice. The correlation between looks and ability suggests that the rule, “don’t hire the munter” will, generally speaking, be a useful one. It’s a fast and frugal heuristic that saves the decision-maker time and often works. It is, therefore, an efficient rule.But it can be an unjust one, because it penalizes the small number of Susan Boyles. If it’s expensive for these to demonstrate their talents - and it will be in many cases where they can do so only over time, or by working with costly capital - they will not get hired.

There’s therefore a trade-off between efficiency and justice

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