Choosing your holiday lodging on the Airbnb platform should be about picking the nicest apartment or house for rent. However, it turns out that we don’t care so much about the looks of the bedroom and too much about the looks of the host who owns the bedroom.
Together with scientists from the Tilburg University, UT researcher Mariëlle Stel studied the effect of Airbnb hosts’ appearance on the price of their listings in New York City. The results clearly show: the more attractive the host, the more they charge – because people seem happy to pay ‘a beauty premium’.
study on facial attractiveness
The study ‘The effects of facial attractiveness and trustworthiness in online peer-to-peer markets’ was published in Journal of Economic Psychology in December. Its leading author is Bastian Jaeger (Tilburg University) who also collaborated with Mariëlle Stel, an associate professor at the Department of Psychology of Conflict, Risk, and Safety of the University of Twente.
‘Although to be precise, it is more of an ugliness penalty, rather than a beauty premium,’ clarifies Stel. ‘If you are unattractive, you charge less. By 6,82% per night to be exact. We have also found that Black hosts charge less for similar listings. Facial expressions, specifically the intensity of one’s smile, also have an effect on the price. People who smile more in the photo, charge more.’
Another finding of the ‘Airbnb study’ reveals that people don’t particularly care if the host looks trustworthy. It’s all about the pretty face. ‘Indeed, we also compared if the “trustworthy” look influences the price, but that is not the case,’ says Mariëlle Stel. ‘We are not sure why people focus on attractiveness. It might be because being unattractive is associated with being unhealthy and we don’t want to stay in an unhealthy apartment. Of course, it has been shown by previous research that good-looking people are seen as more sociable, fun and generally more likable.’
It is clear that we are heavily influenced by facial cues when making decisions, even in cases when the face is completely irrelevant. ‘Facial expressions are faster for us to process and they are more intuitive, which is why people rely on them more,’ explains Stel. The study is part of a larger research on this topic. ‘We are looking into what people believe they can infer from facial cues and to what extent their impressions are accurate.’
If it comes to Airbnb, our judgment doesn’t seem to be very accurate – or at least it doesn’t lead to a more enjoyable stay. The research shows that people enjoy their stay equally, no matter what their host looks like. So the experience and the accommodation might be the same, but the prices are not. Simply because we judge the book by the author’s ‘cover’. ‘If you’d like it to be more fair,’ says Stel. ‘You could either ban all profile pictures or you could make the pictures less salient and put the focus on other information.’