People are more interested in learning about the work of attractive scientists, but they see these good-looking researchers as less able than their average-appearing counterparts, a study suggested Monday.
The report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) highlights the biases that come with judging people on looks, particularly in the field of science, in an era of popular TED talks and increasing online engagement.
“It seems that people use facial appearance as a source of information when selecting and evaluating science news,” said lead author Will Skylark from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.
“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.”
For the report, researchers at the University of Cambridge and University of Essex conducted six separate studies to see how scientists’ looks affected public perception of their research.
Some 3,700 people aged 18-81 took part, from both the United States and Britain. Many were recruited online.
Faces of scientists were randomly selected for the studies, sampling from the physics and genetics departments at US universities, and also from physics and biological sciences departments at British universities.
One group of participants was asked to rate the scientists’ faces on their level of attractiveness.
Then, two other groups of participants weighed in on how interested they would be in finding out more about each scientist’s research.
They also were asked if each scientist “looked like someone who conducts accurate and important research.”
Comparing the data from these different groups of people, researchers found that people were more interested in learning about the work of scientists they found to be physically attractive.
People also appeared slightly more interested in older scientists, and less drawn to females.
Researchers found no differences along racial lines, whether scientists were black or white.
When asked which scientists likely did high-quality work, members of the public tended to pick the plainer-looking ones.
“Our results show that science is a social activity whose outcomes depend on facial appearance in ways that may bias public attitudes and government actions regarding key scientific issues such as climate change and biotechnology,” concluded the report.
For Skylark, the same biases that exist elsewhere in life are also apparent in science.
“People can be influenced by how someone looks rather than, necessarily, what they say,” he said.