People care about how scientists look when they listen to their news, says study

Brains and beauty appears to be the dream combination when it comes to scientists.

Scientists who are both brainy and beautiful are seen as more interesting but not as academically able as their less attractive colleagues, according to a new study.

The good looks of broadcaster and physics professor Brian Cox as well as author and anatomy expert Alice Roberts may have played a big part in their success as science communicators, the findings suggest.

But if the results are to be believed, neither are rated as highly competent scientists by members of the public.

alice roberts (Anthony Devlin/PA)
Roberts is a TV presenter, an author, an expert in anatomy and anthropology, and Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Trials involved showing volunteers photos of over 300 British and American scientists and asking them to rate them for intelligence and attractiveness.

Other groups of participants then indicated how keen they would be to know more about what each scientist did, and whether they thought the academics were likely to be carrying out accurate and important research.

People were more interested in learning about the work of scientists who were seen as physically attractive and who appeared “competent and moral”.

cambridge university (Nick Ansell/PA)
Dr Skylark at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology led the study (Nick Ansell/PA)

But when it came to judging scientific ability, having an attractive face counted against the researchers. The better looking and more sociable they were perceived to be, the less they were expected to be conducting high quality research.

The study also found people were more likely to pair the titles of science news stories with photos of interesting looking scientists, and research articles paired with photos of scientists previously judged to have high academic ability were considered better in quality by the participants.

Brian Cox (Ian West/PA)
Cox is a well-known broadcaster and documentary maker and the reported co-author of more than 950 scientific publications (Ian West/PA)

Lead researcher Will Skylark, from Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology, said: “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.

“We know from studies showing that political success can be predicted from facial appearance, that people can be influenced by how someone looks rather than, necessarily, what they say. We wanted to see if this was true for scientists.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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