Snap judgements and face value

Turn the other cheek to look like a scientist, study of academics' photos finds. Matthew Reisz writes

August 16, 2012

Can an academic's profile picture on a university website influence their citation record or their student survey results? Psychologists have posed that question in a journal article suggesting that scholars "reveal more about ourselves than we think".

When cognitive neuroscientist Owen Churches took up a post as a research fellow at the University of South Australia, delays in setting up a laboratory led him to devise research that could be done without one. He was asked to submit a photograph for the university's website and wondered whether he had unwittingly picked one designed "to give an impression of being more scientific and less emotional" - and whether others did the same.

This led Dr Churches to build a team for a study that has now been published in the journal PLoS ONE as "How Academics Face the World: A Study of 5,829 Homepage Pictures". Even Darwin, they report, "noted in those around him a tendency to move the muscles on the left side of the face more than the right side of the face when expressing emotions". These observations have since been "confirmed by experimental and physiological results".

That left the question of how academics present themselves. "If scientists seek to appear objective and unemotional then they should be more likely to show the right cheek," the authors say. "Likewise, if arts academics seek to display their emotionality then they should be more likely to show their left cheek."

The researchers looked at almost 6,000 pictures from some of the 200 universities in the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. They found "a clear difference in the way academics in the sciences and the arts present themselves to the world...scientists reduced the visibility of their emotions while English academics promoted the visibility of their emotions".

Rather surprisingly to Dr Churches, academic psychologists tended to "readily display their emotion and thus appear more like arts academics than scientists".

The results, speculate the researchers, might have real-world consequences. They ask: "Are student ratings of professors higher for academics who show their left cheek in their profile picture because they engender a feeling of approachability? Or are academics who show the right cheek cited more because they are thought by other academics to display a more critical rationality?"

Dr Churches said the whole process has made him "more self-conscious" about his own photographs. He added that he had already seen "a tweet from a Dutch employment agency telling people to change their profile pictures to make sure they 'look like scientists'".

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