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People find attractive scientists more interesting but less able

Science issues such as climate change, food sustainability and vaccinations are becoming more important for people to understand, and scientists are required to engage with the public to explain them. But just how important are a scientist’s looks in the equation?

Researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex recently published a study that suggests people are more likely to find an attractive scientist interesting, but more likely to consider their less attractive colleagues to be better scientists. Dr Will Skylark from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, says that they wanted to see if facial appearance can also predict scientific success as it can political success.

The team from the two universities sampled the faces of scientists from the Physics and Genetics departments at US universities (108 scientists for each field), and then from the Physics and Biological Sciences departments at UK universities (200 scientists for each field) for replication studies. Then, researchers asked a group of participants in the study to rate the faces on a variety of traits, such as how intelligent the individual looked, how attractive they were, and their perceived age. Two other groups of participants indicated how interested they would be in finding out more about each scientist’s research or how much the person looked like someone who conducts accurate and important research.


According to a University of Cambridge press release, the study found that people were more interested in learning about the work of scientists who were physically attractive and who appeared competent and moral. Interest was also slightly stronger for older scientists, and slightly lower for females. There was no difference in interest between white and non-white scientists.

However, when it came to judging whether a scientist does high-quality work, people tended to associate this with an individual’s apparent competence and morality – and the more attractive and sociable they were perceived to be, the fewer people considered them to look like a scientist who conducts good research.

The team next investigated whether facial appearance affects people’s choices about which science to engage with by pairing the titles of real science news stories with faces that had received low or high-interest judgments in the first part of the study. Participants were more likely to choose research that was paired with a photo of an interesting-looking scientist. This bias was present both for male and female scientists, physics and biology news stories, and both video and text formats.

Next, the participants were told that they would read articles from a new magazine section comprising profiles of people discussing their interests and work. The articles were adapted from news websites to make them appear like the scientist was describing his or her own work to a general audience. Participants read two articles, each presented with a photo of its putative author – one with a high ‘good scientist’ rating in the first study and one with a low rating.

Research that was paired with the photo of a ‘good scientist’ was judged to be higher quality, irrespective of the scientist’s gender and discipline – although the effect was small. In addition, quality judgments were higher for physics articles than for biology articles. A similar study found that the attractiveness of the scientist had only a small effect on the perceived quality of their research.

Though it is not clear how much facial appearance shapes the spread and acceptance of scientific ideas among the public, it is clear that it is used as a source of information when selecting and evaluating science news.

John Beckett