For Scientists, Attractiveness Has Its Advantages

We are more interested in hearing what good-looking scientists have to say—but we place more trust in their nerdy-looking colleagues.
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We are more interested in hearing what good-looking scientists have to say—but we place more trust in their nerdy-looking colleagues.

Who is the public face of science today? Bill Nye? Neil deGrasse Tyson? Do you find them attractive? Do their looks match the image of a skilled scientist you carry around in your head?

Odd questions, to be sure, but important ones. New research finds scientists' facial appearance influences both the level of interest in their work, and their perceived credibility.

"People partly treat science communication as a form of entertainment, where emotional impact and aesthetic appeal are desirable qualities," writes a research team led by University of Cambridge psychologist William Skylark.

Specifically, they infer specific traits from scientists' faces, and this "may bias public attitudes and government actions regarding key scientific issues such as climate change and biotechnology."

These findings emerge at a time when scientists increasingly feel the need to go public with their concerns, and counter the science-denying habits of prominent politicians. They also coincide with "the rising use of video media such as TED talks," the researchers note.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Skylark and colleagues Ana Gheorghiu and Mitchell Callan of the University of Ethics describe six studies demonstrating this phenomenon. For the first, they randomly sampled the faces of 216 scientists in the physics and genetics departments of 200 American universities.

"One group of participants rated those faces on a variety of social traits (including 'How intelligent is this person?'), as well as attractiveness and perceived age," they write. "Two other groups of participants indicated how interested they would be in finding out more about each scientist's research, or how much the person looked like someone who conducts accurate and important research."

The second study was structured in the same way, except it used the photographs of 400 British scientists. Their combined results suggest something of a double bind for researchers wishing to engage the public.

"Scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive are more likely to garner interest in their work," the researchers write. "Those who appear competent and moral but who are relatively unattractive and apparently unsociable create a stronger impression of doing high-quality research."

The four additional studies produced similar results, and confirmed this dynamic was "unaffected by the scientist's gender and discipline." For example, in one pair of experiments, "members of the public were told that they would read an article or watch a video in which a scientist describes his or her work."

They were more likely to choose research that was paired with a photo of a competent-looking, attractive scientist—but they judged the work of their less-attractive colleagues as superior.

This presents scientists with a dilemma (including Skylark, who frets on his homepage that his photo makes him look smug). One possible solution: Perhaps when presenting vital information to the public, a tag-team approach would be best.

Dr. Gyllenhall could introduce the topic and capture people's attention. He could then turn things over to Dr. Buscemi to make the sale.