While scientists who combine brains and beauty were found to be more interesting, the public believes they are less academically able, and so may distrust their opinions or findings – new study suggests.
Lead researcher Dr Will Skylark, from Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology, said: “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.
“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.”
In the first of a series of trials, 3,100 volunteers were shown photos of more than 300 British and American scientists and asked to rate them for intelligence and attractiveness.
Other groups of participants then indicated how keen they would be to know more about what each scientist did, and whether they thought the academics were likely to be carrying out accurate and important research.
People were more interested in learning about the work of scientists who were seen as physically attractive and who appeared “competent and moral”.
But when it came to judging scientific ability, having an attractive face counted against the researchers. The better looking and more sociable they were perceived to be, the less they were expected to be conducting high quality research.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also found that people were more likely to pair the titles of science news stories with photos of interesting looking scientists.
In addition, research articles paired with photos of scientists previously judged to have high academic ability were considered better in quality by the participants.
“It seems that people use facial appearance as a source of information when selecting and evaluating science news,” said Dr Skylark.
“It’s not yet clear how much this shapes the spread and acceptance of scientific ideas among the public, but the rapid growth in visual media means it may be an increasingly important issue.”