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About brains and looks

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 5, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 23

The field of social psychology has given us gems such as the widely known maxim that how people respond to you is based primarily on how you look, next on how you sound, and lastly on what you say.

Most of us see how this maxim may represent what happens in the world of politics, pop culture, or even the general media but are probably quite skeptical that the same holds true in the world of science and science communication.

Surely when it comes to science, what you say matters more, right? Surely the public is not influenced by a scientist’s looks and is concerned only with facts and evidence, right? Not so. It looks like we may need to rethink our assumptions based on the results of a recent paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1620542114). Broadly, the study suggests that the public views attractive scientists as less competent than their “ordinary-looking” colleagues. Surprising, isn’t it?

In the study, the scientists who were perceived as good-looking were found to be more interesting but less academically competent, and as a consequence, the public tended to trust their findings or opinions less.

Given the societal impact of issues such as vaccination and climate change, it is paramount that scientists do outreach and communicate with the public so that the public is aware of these issues. The results described in the PNAS paper have the potential to impact how we go about it.

So what can we learn from the study?

Hundreds of volunteers were shown photos of more than 200 U.S. and British scientists and were asked to rank their appearance. A group of participants were then asked about how interested they would be to learn about what each of those scientists did. They were also asked whether they thought those same scientists would be carrying out high-quality research.

The group was more interested in learning about the scientists whom they perceived as physically attractive. However, the group had lower expectations in terms of quality of research for these scientists; in other words, they perceived them to be worse scientists.

The study also looked at the impact these perceptions have on news. Participants were asked to choose science news items to read and watch that were paired with photos of the scientists that were used in the first part of the study. Respondents were more likely to choose items that were paired with the attractive, interesting-looking scientists, especially when they selected video-based communication.

The study also tested for the perceived quality of the articles. The authors report that the news stories that were considered to be better in quality were those that had been paired with the “ordinary-looking” researchers.

The study was based on similar research conducted in the political world, where researchers found that political success can be predicted based on facial appearance. It looks like when it comes to science and science news, we rely on similar mechanisms to select and evaluate: In the public’s opinion, the more attractive the scientist, the more interesting he or she is, but the less knowledgeable he or she is.

So how does this finding shape the spread and acceptance of scientific ideas among the public? People’s reactions to scientists and science itself should be based on the quality of the research. But of course the bias described herein may affect public beliefs and opinion, which in turn may affect policy and, potentially, funding. Ultimately, it can influence the way science is done and by whom.

Whether the maxim is right or not, physical appearance is a source of bias that we need to consider along with gender and race.


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