To be smart and to be good-looking are universally valued traits. However, the two are frequently seen as opposites, and when someone has both brains and beauty, it can lead to strange prejudices.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex recently found that good-looking scientists are not seen to be as competent as their less attractive colleagues.
Lead researcher Will Skylark from the Cambridge Department of Psychology wanted to find out if scientists' looks affected people's perception of their work due to the crucial role science plays in influencing our decisions and, therefore, our future.
"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 explained. "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."
Psychologists recruited approximately 3,700 volunteers from the United States and United Kingdom to participate in the study. In the first trial, researches showed participants over 300 photographs of British and American scientists and asked that they rate the subject's intelligence and attractiveness. Next, other groups of participants were asked to indicate how interested they were in learning more about the scientist's research and whether or not they felt the scientist's studies were actually important and well thought out.
Naturally, the results echoed society's split when it comes to good looks and a clever mind.
While participants were interested in learning more about the research done by scientists they considered good-looking, the study found that they didn't necessarily believe in the quality of that research. In fact, psychologists found that the more good-looking and sociable a scientist appeared, the more likely it was for participants to doubt the accuracy of their work.
In addition, researchers found that female scientists were treated with a degree of disregard, that older scientists were generally favored, and that race did not appear to influence the participant's ratings.
“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," the final report states.
The research leaves us with a lot of thinking to do about our own judgments of people based on their appearances. How many times have we ignored valuable information merely because it came out of the mind of someone with a beautiful face? How often have we listened because the person speaking fit our assumptions of how respectability and morality looks? There's a lot we can miss if we don't take the time to look, and it seems we can miss just as much if we do only that.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Flickr user Chris Gunn/ NASA