‘Blinded by beauty’ – how teachers’ perceptions of ability are skewed by physical appearance

Teachers’ perceptions of their students’ academic abilities could be skewed by how physically attractive they are, according to new research.

The findings have “worrying implications” for students, say researchers from the University of St Andrews, because teachers’ perceptions of how well students might do academically can have a “real impact” on students’ future performance.

Post-doctorate researcher Sean Talamas explained that a student’s “attractiveness halo” can influence the expectations that teachers have of them.

“Attractiveness has an overarching effect on first impressions,” he told TES.

Beauty and the bias

The psychologist said that his paper, Blinded by Beauty: attractiveness bias and accurate perceptions of academic performance, was aimed at emphasising how prevalent and limiting the attractiveness bias is.

Mr Talamas explained that characteristics such as conscientiousness are ascribed more readily to attractive people, so teachers may place higher expectations on good-looking students.

The expectations teachers have of their students is known to have a psychological impact that significantly affects achievement.

Mr Talamas said: “Students can sense that, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Rules of engagement

“This could manifest itself in the classroom by teachers calling on one student more than others or praising them a bit more generously.”

Mr Talamas, who has an MA in teaching from Austin Peay State University, Tennessee, has first-hand experiences of the factors that can affect the level of attention a student receives from a teacher.

He said: “Say I’m in a lab with my students – you spend more time with one student than another. This might be to do with their level of sociability or engagement. If we can see that whether a student is quiet or engaged might impact the way a teacher interacts with them, then attractiveness may equally have an impact.”

The new research, published in the journal PLoS One, was conducted by collecting neutrally posed facial photographs and academic performance records from 100 students; these were then rated online for perceived attractiveness, academic performance, conscientiousness, and intelligence.

Reading faces

Professor David Perrett, Head of the Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews, added: “Prior work in our lab has shown that several aspects of personality can be detected from facial appearance.

“Cues to expression can leak into even neutral passport photographs, giving away a person’s sociability etc. However, accuracy in judging character from appearance is quite limited, hence people should be judged by their actions not their looks.”

The findings also suggest that an appearance of ill-health can also influence teachers’ judgements. Dr Talamas explained that looking unwell can create an impression that a student is less capable of high-level cognitive performance.

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