Unattractive People Are Seen As Better Scientists

By Neuroskeptic | May 28, 2017 8:36 am

Good looking, sociable people don’t make good scientists, according to popular stereotypes.

This is one of the findings of an interesting new study of how scientists are perceived, from British researchers Ana I. Gheorghiu and colleagues.

Gheorghiu et al. took 616 pictures of scientists, which they downloaded from the faculty pages at various universities. They gave the portraits to two sets of raters. The first group were asked to rate the attractiveness of the portraits and to say whether they appeared competent, intelligent, etc. A second set of raters were asked whether they thought the person pictured was a good scientist.

This figure shows which variables predicted “good scientist” judgments:

scientist_attractiveThe strongest predictor of being seen as a good scientist was perceived competence, but the second-strongest was attractiveness and it was negatively associated with perceived scientific aptitude. This is a striking result, given that people generally view attractive people as having favourable characteristics.

So what can explain this ‘ugly Einstein’ effect? Gheorghiu et al. have little to say about it. They remark that “the stereotypical scientist may be an impartial truth seeker with limited personal appeal”, but I’ve been thinking about this, and I wonder if these results reflect a deeper phenomenon: a kind of cultural Cartesian dualism.

In terms of popular stereotypes, it seems that you can either be strong and beautiful in body, or be brilliant in mind, but not both. Think of some “good body” stereotypes – athletes, jocks, models, bodybuilders, blondes. Most of them are, stereotypically, unintelligent. Think of how the big, muscular villains in videogames and movies also tend to be the stupid ones.

“Good mind” stereotypes, on the other hand, tend to be unattractive and unathletic: think of the nerd (either overweight or too skinny), the professor (old, physically frail), the wizard in fantasy tropes (low strength and stamina). Intellectual strength and physical weakness seem to go naturally together.

All is not lost for aesthetically-pleasing scientists, however. While they may be perceived as being less able, Gheorghiu et al. also found that attractiveness was a strong, positive predictor of whether scientists were seen as interesting:

scientist_interesting

ResearchBlogging.orgGheorghiu AI, Callan MJ, & Skylark WJ (2017). Facial appearance affects science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 28533389

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  • Marty

    Counter-question: are attractive people seen as worse scientists?

    • Andy

      Since it’s just a correlation, the same data mean both that less attractive people are seen as better scientists and that more attractive people are seen as worse scientists.

      • Marty

        I’m aware of that. It was tongue-in-cheek…But why not make it the headline?

        • Andy

          Sorry, didn’t catch the tongue in your cheek. But, yeah–that’s a good point about how correlations get sold via headlines.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          I did consider doing the headline that way, but “Attractive People Are Seen As Worse Scientists” doesn’t quite work as well I felt – “worse scientists” is just a slightly odd phrase.

          • optimistnyc

            Scientists lose respect if they are handsome/beautiful and charming?

  • http://asif.cc/ Asif

    I would be interested to see a second study to validate these findings.. First, train a classifier using these ratings, and then apply it to a random assortment of known scientists to see if the correlation still holds.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    this study found that people judge the quality of a scientist’s research by his/her facial appearance” Economics, Sociology, and Psychology – the King, Queen, and Knave of Idiots. Add them together to achieve Social Intent:

    www(dot)sciencemag(dot)org(slash)news(slash)2017(slash)05(slash)announcing-2017-dance-your-phd-contest

    Psychology brilliantly illuminates the world with its brown beacon.

  • marigold

    It’s a bit insulting that “blondes” are grouped into your “good body” category. How exactly does hair colour correlate with physical fitness? You’re just helping to perpetuate a stereotype.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I agree, it’s a silly stereotype. But it does exist as a stereotype. I’m not saying it’s true, I’m acknowledging that the stereotype is out there.

      • marigold

        I know, I’m simply responding to your terminology. One stereotype wrongly assumes people who work on their bodies don’t work on their brain. The dumb blonde stereotype (which I have been to victim as an academic) is not based on my body, my attractiveness, or my behaviours, but is generally a misogynistic idea used against me because I’m female. They are both awful stereotypes, but they are different.

        • temporary guest

          Marigold .. I am a retired construction worker. Perhaps it would help you to know that there is a reason why blonde jokes are so short … that would be so that construction workers can understand them. Perhaps it would also help you to know that ever since I was a little bitty boy and first heard about 1955 that little girls are sugar, spice and everything nice and little boys are snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, I’ve heard a new version of that song all my life, more times than I can recall …. and watched women be promoted over and paid more than men and/or get away with things a man never would just because they are women.

          I am not dismissing your argument. I’m sure it’s true. I’m just saying that putting up with a lot of crap because of your gender, believe it or not and contrary to all political narratives, is a two way street. But, from my side of the street, there are far fewer woman haters out there than there are men haters. The way things are going, I expect than in a decade or so, it’ll be a hate crime just to have testosterone in one’s body.

      • Carolina

        I agree. It is a stereotype for attractiveness, specially in coastal territories (take for example California) or countries where most population is not blonde.

    • Kate K

      unfortunate nueroskeptic often doesnt read the full papers. Body type was not included in this study whihc was simply faces only.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

        I didn’t say anything about body types. I suggested that blondes are part of a hypothetical “good body” stereotype in contrast with a “good mind” stereotype. I was using “body” in the sense of “physical body”, not in the sense of “everything below the neck”

  • Violence

    Smart study, difficult to explain how it’s true but it just is. Like so many things decided on by nature.

    • Sys Best

      I can’t say how smart the study is but it’s complex, and there’s a bias in there too, the more complex the study is and more difficult to follow the methods, the more we judge it as “smart”.
      Scientific articles don’t have the photos of the authors anywhere in there, so they are judged on their scientific merit. It may apply to the popularization of science not to the application of science, thank God.

  • Doug Selsam

    This study does not mention the requirement for a stereotypical “scientist” to wear bowties. Nor does it consider how people trained in the scientific method so easily forget to apply it, instead chasing a steady paycheck and passing along bad information.
    Also: not all scientists are found at universities.

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  • CHEMST

    Let’s face it. Good looks and/or intelligence are both frequently passed genetically from parent to child. Is anyone surprised that Cindy Crawford’s and Cheryl Tieg’s daughters are very good looking?
    With notable exception of my wife (and ex-wife), how often are very attractive people more attracted to brainy, ordinary-looking people than other very attractive people? The fact is we call it attractive because it attracts sexual partners. Face it, Leonard and Penny are funny because it is not expected. So why would anyone be surprised that an average-looking pool of potential scientists doesn’t get more attractive over generations.

    • Rebecka Toney

      Cheryl Tiegs does not have a daughter. Were you thinking of Christie Brinkley? Anyway, there are plenty of “beautiful” people whose children are not. And TBBT has not been “funny” for at least four years.

  • nsirchov

    Now I understand why people have always grossly underestimated my scientific abilities

    • jrkrideau

      Personally I don’t believe the study. The Nobel committee still has not called.

  • youdohavetobearocketscientist

    This may be a manifestation of the fact that a majority of people have a strong anti-intellectual bent. Witness the antipathy to “elitists” in the United States. Negative feelings about intellectuals are consistent with negatively viewed physical appearance.

  • Alberto Carvalhal Campos

    Um grade gênio do passado, como Newton. Hoje os conhecimentos são outros e eles tornaram-se absoletos.
    A humanidade hoje sabe mais do universo, que os sábios antigos.

  • Alberto Carvalhal Campos

    A great genius of the past, like Newton. Today the knowledge is other and they have become stale.
    Humanity today knows more of the universe than the ancient sages.

  • Pingback: goggles optional | Episode 182: A glimpse of human history()

  • http://www.facebook.com/Kieseyhow KieSeyHow

    It seems to me, from people I have known, that many feel attractive people have life easy and are less intelligent in general. They seem also more likely to lie, cheat and be involved with corruption. These aspects of human social perceptions are one of the reasons I find psychology so fascinating.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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