As anyone who has wandered the corridors of an economics faculty knows, we are not a profession known for our sartorial splendour. Australia’s top-ranked economist (according to the RePEC database) is Adrian Pagan, who is rarely seen in anything but a t-shirt and shorts during summer. In the US, for every Ed Glaeser (who always wears a suit), there must be half a dozen Matthew Rabins (a splendid behavioural economist with a penchant for tie-die t-shirts).
In terms of the signal that dressing up sends to other economists, my guess is that it’s strongly negative. When I arrived at ANU on my first day wearing a suit and tie, I could immediately tell that several people thought they’d hired a dud. (My protestations about having been a lawyer in a previous life did little to assuage this.)
By contrast, there is some evidence that looks matter in the classroom. In a neat paper several years ago, Dan Hamermesh and Amy Parker showed that more beautiful academics get higher teaching ratings. But does primping pay?
To test this, I ran an experiment on my Masters students this semester. At the end of each class, I asked them to tear off a scrap of paper, and write a number on it, from 1 to 10, where 1 indicated that this was the worst lecture they’d attended in their life, 10 was the best lecture they’d attended in their life, and 5 was an average lecture. They could also write comments/suggestions on the scrap of paper. (This turned out to be a useful feedback tool for me, though I don’t recommend it for the faint-hearted!)
In order to gauge the effect of attire, I alternated from lecture to lecture between a suit and tie, and a collared shirt with beige pants. I figured that if the effect of dressing up was big enough, it would show in the data.
Turned out that it did, but not the way I expected. On lectures when I was wearing a suit, students gave the class an average rating of 5.8 out of 10. On lectures when I was not wearing a suit, students gave it 6.3 out of 10. Somewhat surprised by this, I looked back at the schedule, and realised that several of the suit-wearing lectures coincided with days when the students took an in-class test. After accounting for this, it transpired that the difference was a mere 0.2 points (in favour of the suit). In other words, primping doesn’t payâ€¦ at least if you’re an economics lecturer.