While we are more likely to find good-looking scientists interesting, we’re less likely to think they’re actually good at science when compared to their less attractive colleagues. So while Brian Cox and Neil DeGrasse Tyson might get top billing as a bit of eye candy, you might be less likely to believe they’re actually good at their job, despite their credentials.
In a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, psychologists from the University of Cambridge suggest that their findings could help with more effective science communication.
“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,” explains co-author Dr Will Skylark. Yet it turns out that those scientists who are the most pleasing to the eye might not garner the most trust from the public.
The reseearchers had participants look at the photos of over 300 British and US scientists, all experts in their respective fields, and asked them to rate how intelligent and attractive they thought the researchers were. Another two groups were then quizzed as to how interested they would be to learn more about what each scientist did, as well as whether or not they looked like they would conduct accurate and important research.
In general, people were most likely to be interested in the work of the more attractive scientists. Yet when it came down to who they thought conducted the highest quality work, the volunteers tended to think it was those who were deemed the most competent and moral, not who was the best looking of the bunch.
This is isn’t the first time that looks have been found to have an influence of how we perceive how well someone communicates to 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,” continues Dr Skylark.
It turns out that the field of science communication is no different, in that facial features also play an important role in how we judge what scientists have to say. How much exactly this impacts our opinions of people is still not clear, so Brian Cox may not have too much to worry about for the time being.