We Don’t Like Our Scientists to Be Too Good-Looking

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We humans are shallow creatures, dear readers. A new study finds that people find attractive scientists more interesting, but less capable and credible than their homelier counterparts. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lead author Will Skylark researches psychology at the University of Cambridge. "Given the importance of science to issues that could have a major impact on society, such as climate change, food sustainability ,and vaccinations, scientists are increasingly required to engage with the public," he said in a statement.

Previous studies have shown that a politician’s facial appearance can strongly influence voter behavior. Skylark and his colleagues wondered if the same was true for science communicators and their audiences.

They collected photos of more than 416 physicists, geneticists, and biologists from universities in the U.S. and UK. Then they showed randomly selected photos to hundreds of volunteers and asked them to rate the photos on qualities like competence, intelligence, sociability, likability, kindness, honesty, attractiveness, and interestingness.

The researchers then randomly matched photos with four science stories and told participants to choose which stories they’d most like to read. The same stories were matched with different people at varying levels of attractiveness to confirm that the science stories themselves were not influencing participants’ decisions.

In a separate test, participants read a story, then saw a picture of the scientist who was purportedly responsible for it. They were then asked to judge the quality of the work and whether the researcher involved was a “good scientist.”

The results suggest that scientists really can’t win, no matter what they look like. The researchers rated the most competent and trustworthy were also rated less interesting and less attractive. Attractive scientists were considered more interesting, but less credible, and less likely to be designated “good scientists.”

Once upon a time, a scientist’s face only mattered to the scientist and those around them. But we have reached the era of Twitter and YouTube, and scientists are increasingly expected to get out there and communicate their ideas to the public. The judgy, judgy public.

"It seems that people use facial appearance as a source of information when selecting and evaluating science news," Skylark says. "It's not yet clear how much this shapes the spread and acceptance of scientific ideas among the public, but the rapid growth in visual media means it may be an increasingly important issue."