Don’t you just hate good-looking people? Of course you do. They’re the worst. Especially when they’re good at stuff. How dare they be attractive and talented at the same time, it’s just an abomination. Glad you all agree. Right, let's get on with it.
A few days ago I stumbled across an interesting journal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It showed that people tend to evaluate others based on their looks. In other news - triangles have three sides.
It's hardly a shock to say people judge each other on appearances. I mean what else are you going to judge them on? The quality of the character and their personal achievements?! Please!
What was really interesting about this particular study was that it correlated beauty with one parameter I’m very interested in: whether you are trusted as a Scientist. It claimed that people are actually less likely to take you seriously in a Scientific context if you are good looking. When it comes to Science, apparently we want our experts ugly.
It’s good news for me because I look like a potato with a beard, but I can imagine somebody attractive finding it a problem. Thing is I'm very fortunate and I get taken seriously as a Scientist. I have my own quantum-mechanical equation, my own chemical and I've got a book coming out in July 2018, but it has to be said that at my graduation ceremony nobody asked for my number. Imagine being a Scientist where your ideas got dismissed simply because you look good in a lab coat? Actually, what am I talking about…everyone looks good in a lab coat.
Conducted by Ana Gheorgiu at Cambridge University, the study showed people photographs of Scientists and asked them to rate each one for looks, perceived competency as a Scientist, and whether they looked interesting.
One of these tests gave a fairly expected result: we’re more likely to be interested in a person’s research if they are attractive, but here’s the kicker…we’re less likely to trust the actual Science they write.
As if that wasn't puzzling enough, she took things a stage further. She gave another group of people an article with an author photograph beside it. When the author was one of the “ugly” Scientists, the article was praised. When the author was “pretty” the same article was suddenly criticised as being sloppy. The lesson here is obvious…use pretty people to get funding for your research, but don’t let them do educational TV shows.
This discord between a Scientist being “interesting” and “competent” implies that while we might tune in to watch the charming features of Brian Cox, we don’t actually trust him as a Scientist. I mean just look at him with his perfect hair and rugged features. What an idiot he obviously is.
Are we hard-wired to mistrust attractive people? Of course not. The exact opposite in fact. In 2016, Fengling Ma from the Wenzhou Medical University showed a group of children 200 faces and asked them to rate each one for trustworthiness. Two months later they came back and rated the same faces on how attractive they were. Overwhelmingly, the children associated good-looking people with trustworthiness.
Maybe it's hard-wired? After all, we usually think highly of someone because they’re gorgeous. So often does our culture praise beautiful people and ask them for opinions on things they aren’t qualified to talk about.
I’ve written before about cognitive biases, but it seems there is a subtlety to this particular one. Our natural inclination is “pretty = trustworthy” but there is an important qualifier “unless you’re a Scientist.” Where does that come from? I’m going to put forward a hypothesis. See what you think. Also, here's Kat Dennings, my pick for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Annoyingly Perfect People
The cultural stereotype of Scientists is that they are intelligent. What I propose is that this is over-ridden by an older and more engrained stereotype: attractive people are supposed to be dumb.
People often regard beautiful women as air-heads or bimbos, while attractive men are meant to be vain and shallow. Since these people are more likely to get favourable treatment in life, the assumption is that they never have to work hard intellectually. Is it true? Can beautiful people be smart? Obviously they can.
I have two instagram friends who are, by anyone's standards, physically attractive. One of them is a former beauty queen who used to do pageants, has appeared on Jay Leno and did some commerical work as a bikini-clad model. Let's be frank, you don’t get to do those things unless you look good. Today, she is a bilingual NASA intern who runs her own business. How's that for a stereotype.
The other is a pre-med student (ie clearly smart) who posts photographs of herself looking attractive. What’s really baffling is that she receives hate mail about it. People actually criticise her for posting images where she looks nice. What's the point? Nobody criticses me when I post a picture of an equation.
What's more, when you talk to both of them, they are intelligent, confident, Scientifically literate and (shock horror) nice, friendly women...they just happen to look good as well. Apparently, this makes many people uncomfortable - as if it’s unfair. There seems to be an unspoken belief that nobody should be good at too many things, so somebody who is smart, friendly and good-looking needs to have something wrong with them to balance the Universe out.
But life isn’t a game of The Sims where each human gets a certain amount of points to share among ther personality traits. People can be good at everything and look amazing while doing it. Same way you can be dumb and ugly at the same time.
There might be a certain amount of misogyny going on here. I’ve written before about why we need more feminism in Science so I won’t bang on about it, but I think sometimes society assumes a woman’s job is to look pretty and smile. Only the ugly ones are supposed to go into Science.
But this is the real world and it’s not filled with stock-characters from 1950s sitcoms. People are allowed to be talented, smart and good-looking simultaneously. Be jealous of them, sure. And by all means do mocking impressions of Brian Cox in front of your physics class (just…you know…if that’s like…what you wanna do) but don’t hold it against them. Hating someone for being good at things is forgivable, treating them differently is not.
By the way, I’m very aware that I’m focusing slightly more on women here. That’s because as a heterosexual man I find it easier to comment on whether a woman is good-looking or not. So my apologies for giving a one-sided perspective of this debate. I'm just not as good when it comes to spotting an attractive man.
Running the Numbers
Now, just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, let’s consider whether or not the stereotype has any foundation. Are pretty people less likely to be intelligent? Well, on cold statistical grounds there might be an arbitrary correlation, but it doesn’t imply what you think.
Beautiful people constitue a small sample of the population, as do intelligent people. The chances of a person falling into both categories is potentially smaller still. So yes, a person being both gorgeous and intelligent is less likely than them being one of those things exclusively. But, and here is the crucial point, this is an incidental relationship, not a causal one.
The number of people who like cactuses is small. So is the number of people who like Nicolas Cage movies. So if we meet a Nicolas Cage fan who also collects cactuses they are probably quite rare. But those two things are completely unrelated. The fact they like Nicolas Cage movies has nothing to do with their liking of cactuses. They obviously just enjoy punishment.
A Nicolas Cage-loving cactus collector is rare but we shouldn’t meet a Nicolas Cage fan and assume they therefore don’t like cactuses. There is no causal nexus between the two. Likewise, if a person is pretty it doesn’t mean we should assume they are dumb. Or act surprised when we find out they are clever.
It also doesn’t mean if you’re good at Science you’re unattractive. Neither is it true that if you’re gorgeous you’re doomed to fail your exams. The truth is that your brains and your beauty are completely uncoupled from each other. If you care about appearances then you primp and preen yourself as much as you want. If you don't care about your appearance then leave the house wearing a crumpled sack if you want. There's no correct way for a Scientist to look.
So, there’s my hypothesis. Because we tend to associate hot with dumb, we’re less likely to trust a hot Scientist because it implies a contradiction. Now, like all hypotheses, it needs to be criticised and tested, so let me know what the problems are and let’s see if we can disconfirm it!
Ultimately, what the study highlights is how wrong we can be when we make snap-judgements, especially about how intelligence relates to looks. We might as well ask people to predict a person’s favourite sandwich from what colour their eyes are. If you are ever asked to judge someone’s competency as a Scientist from a photograph, that photograph had better be of their research thesis!
Right, I’m off to buy an eye-patch.
I love science, let me tell you why.