Oops! Turns out that college students learn more in their classes when their professors are…no, not more brilliant or more generous with the trigger warnings, but better-looking.
Building upon other researchers’ findings that people attribute positive characteristics to those who are relatively attractive, [University of Nevada-Las Vegas psychology doctoral student Shane] Westfall has concluded that good-looking instructors might have another advantage: Their students learn more.
Here's how the study proceeded:
Mr. Westfall and his study’s co-authors — Mandy Walsh, a fellow doctoral student, and Murray Millar, an associate professor of psychology — reached that finding based on an unusual experiment involving 86 female and 45 male university students. They fibbed to their subjects about the study’s purpose, describing it as an examination of how different lecture styles affect learning, and asked them to listen to a 20-minute lecture in introductory physics and take a 25-question multiple-choice test based on its content. They also asked the students to evaluate the instructor’s performance.
Some of the students heard a lecture delivered by a man; others, the identical lecture delivered by a woman. The twist was that they never learned their instructor’s real identity, and instead, for both the man and the woman, were randomly shown one of two photographs falsely described as depicting that person. Just over half viewed photos of someone whom participants in a previous study had, on average, rated as an eye-pleasing eight on a one-to-10 scale of physical attractiveness. The other photo showed a person whose average rating had been a below-average 3.25.
Over all, compared with the 62 student participants shown the less-attractive photo, the 69 shown a relatively good-looking instructor not only gave that person a better evaluation but performed significantly better on the multiple-choice test. On average, they answered about 1.6 more questions correctly — a difference equivalent to just over half a letter grade.
As might be expected, these findings could be expected to rattle the ever-so-politically correct professoriate, especially the female professoriate. In 2010 Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode urged lawmakers to add looks to race, sex, religion, and similar categories that are the staple of anti-discrimination laws:
Just like racial or gender discrimination, discrimination based on irrelevant physical characteristics reinforces invidious stereotypes and undermines equal-opportunity principles based on merit and performance.
Why this disparate treatment of looks in so many areas of life? It’s a matter of simple prejudice….
A more radical solution may be needed: why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?…
The mechanics of legislating this kind of protection are not as difficult as you might think.
UN-Las Vegas researcher Wesfall told the Chronicle:
I was reading an article in the campus newspaper where I earned my undergraduate degree, Texas Tech University, and they interviewed a couple of faculty members about the website Rate My Professors. The faculty members complained about how demeaning it was to have their appearance rated with chili peppers, and how that was not supposed to have any impact on their teaching. That led me to ask, Well, does it?
And it turned out that it does. Not that an ugly professor can't still be a great teacher–but maybe it's a mistake to create an entire new category of "lookism" to add to racism and sexism as being societal evils whose victims deserve special legal protection.. Since time began, better-looking people have tended to do better in their careers, marriages, and personal happiness. Maybe that's unfair. But life is unfair, and there's a lot about life that can't be remedied just by outlawing "lookism."