Source of article The Jury Room - Keene Trial Consulting.
And it doesn’t really matter if the expert is male or female, if they are young or old, and they can be any ethnicity! In other words, said the researchers—the variables we have read so much about (i.e., gender, age, ethnicity) are not as notable as whether someone “looks like” our stereotype of a “good scientist”. Very intriguing in the search for the “perfect expert”. The researchers completed six separate studies and we want to give you the results using their words because the findings are so very consistent across the studies.
In the first two studies, the researchers asked participants to rate actual “faces of scientists from physics (N = 108) and genetics/human genetics (N = 108) departments of 200 US universities” on attractiveness and intelligence and to say how interested they would be in hearing the scientist’s work. Here’s how they summarize their results:
In sum, scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive are more likely to garner interest in their work; those who appear competent and moral but who are relatively unattractive and apparently unsociable create a stronger impression of doing high-quality research.
[As a digression, one of the most interesting lectures I sat through in undergrad social psychology a whole bunch of years ago described the LLAAT, or the “Looks Like an Astronaut Test”. Yes. NASA conducted a study to determine whether people’s visual impressions of astronaut candidates was actually predictive of their success in the training program. Supposedly, it was useful. I can’t locate this study anymore, so I can’t verify the study, but it seems a fair precedent for the current research. And, at 19, this struck me as very funny.]
In plain English, when you are less attractive and less socially skilled, you are seen as doing better quality research—perhaps because you fulfill our stereotypes of what a “nerd” should look like. Maybe the fact that you look like you have a very limited social life makes you a credible candidate for weekends in the library or laboratory.
In the next two studies, the participants were shown photos of scientists paired with various science news articles. “Study 3 examined whether the effects of face-based impressions were moderated by the scientist’s gender, academic discipline, and communication format (text versus video); study 4 explored the distinct contributions of facial competence and attractiveness, and the moderating influence of participant demographics.” And here is what they found:
Taken together, these studies show that facial appearance affects the public’s selection of science news stories. [While participants initially were drawn to the research of attractive scientists, they were more interested in listening to the less attractive scientists. We also want to insert here that the researchers describe the less attractive scientists as those with “interesting faces”.]
For the final two studies, “Finally, we tested the consequences of face-based impressions for the public’s appraisal of a scientist’s work. We paired articles from news websites with faces that did or did not look like good scientists.” [Helpful translation: whether they were “interesting looking” or more classically attractive.] The researchers describe their findings this way:
Research that was paired with the photo of a good scientist was judged to be higher quality, and this effect was unaffected by the scientist’s gender and discipline.
That was in Study 5. In Study 6, the trend continues. “Participants read four physics news stories, each paired with a male face from one cell of the design. They were subsequently shown the face–article pairings one at a time and asked to imagine that they had been selected to judge how much each piece of research deserved to win a prize for excellence in science.
More-competent-looking scientists were judged more deserving of the prize.” [We don’t say this often but are these researchers not just the nicest and kindest researchers ever? Not unattractive or nerdy, but “interesting looking” and “more competent looking”.] One of our favorite neuroscience bloggers, the Neuroskeptic, dubs this the ‘ugly Einstein’ effect. The Neuroskeptic is obviously not as kind as these researchers but his thoughts are (as usual) worth reading.
Here’s how the researchers describe their overall results:
People reported more interest in the research of scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive; [so we are initially drawn to the kinds of photos you would see of models pretending to be scientists—but….] when judging whether a researcher does “good science,” people again preferred scientists who look competent and moral, but also favored less sociable and more physically unattractive individuals.
From a litigation advocacy perspective, what this says is you want an expert who “looks like” our stereotypical image of a friendly, but slightly nerdy, high school Chemistry or Physics teacher. Or someone who looks like many of the cast members from the popular TV show who illustrate this post. These are “real scientists” who do “good science” and who presumably will display substance over style. [This is feel good science for all the “interesting looking” and “competent looking” among us.]
This article also echoes what we’ve heard from mock jurors for years. They want to hear from “real people” who can speak to them without being condescending yet also teach them what they need to know. They see those witnesses as much more credible and believable than their more traditionally attractive, polished and urbane colleagues.
Gheorghiu, A., Callan, M., & Skylark, W. (2017). Facial appearance affects science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1620542114
(Open access here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/05/16/1620542114.full.pdf).