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Being Attractive In Scientific Fields Isn't Always Pretty

You're listening to an expert give a data-driven PowerPoint presentation. This person is both smart, and attractive. Is that going to be a problem? Maybe so, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Essex in England asked 3,700 study participants to rate the photos of 600 geneticists and physicists from 400 U.S. and British universities for perceived attractiveness, intelligence, morality, competence and sociability. Study participants were asked how much they would like to find out more about each scientist's work, and to what extent each scientist's research seemed accurate, and important.

The P-value of Prettiness
The good news? Attractiveness can bring attention to a scientist's hard work like bees to a flower! However, attractiveness cannot make others value the work, or the conclusions. There can be an initial interest to consider the work, but the extent to which the work has impact could be debatable. And scientists are all about impact. Goodbye, h-index, thanks for stopping by.


Could such a study find applicability in other professional fields where general attractiveness could potentially present barriers? It's sort of like the latest episode of HBO's Silicon Valley, "Blood Boy," where an attractive male with a "CS degree" laments how the other brogrammers don't take his work seriously because of his physical appearance. He's too attractive to fit into the geek work culture!

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it's only skin deep and we are all beautiful in our own way. That said, Hollywood is subtly changing our perception of attractiveness in scientific work fields. When you think about it (which I did after reading the terrific article linked to above) TV and movie scientists of past generations were decidedly...strange. Think Star Trek's Spock, Dr. Strangelove and Doc Brown from Back to the Future, to name a few.

But now? Movie scientists (and related wonks) are heating up the screen with their super-cool theories about everything! From The Martian to The Imitation Game to Interstellar to Hidden Figures to Doctor Strange to Arrival, movie scientists are morphing into sexy beings who are trim, tan and usually wear contacts. Movie audiences don't want to do the math with Matt Damon, they want to do Matt Damon while he does the math!

What can we learn from this study?

Besides watching more science-based Hollywood movies based on best-selling novels and comic strips, it's good for scientists (and by extension, everyone else) to keep perceptions in mind as they send their finished work into the ether. They are not only selling their conclusions, they are selling the idea that smart and attractive do not have to be mutually-exclusive properties anymore. A Ph.D. professional can be attractive and have great scientific impact. Matt Damon, Benedict Cumberbatch, the awesome Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain will be available to back up this working hypothesis in theaters.


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