Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Discriminating Attractiveness (Part I)

Do physical and other forms of attractiveness play a part in teaching and learning? Do the appearance, demeanour, character and behaviour of students and teachers make any difference to how they perceive one another? Does attractiveness influence evaluations made, attention given or expectations formed?

Much as I’d like to say an unequivocal “No” to these questions the evidence proves overwhelmingly otherwise. Attractiveness plays a part in all human interactions – even the purely textual.

This is clearly a taboo subject and you certainly won’t find mention of it in any university policy documents or prospectuses. Universities would be quick to distance themselves even from the touchpaper of favouritism let alone anything more incendiary.

Even though the impact of attractiveness is extremely difficult to gauge accurately, it is no doubt widespread, not just in education but in all walks of life, which is probably why it so often goes unmentioned and unacknowledged. We are animals after all and we are subject to forces that have shaped our species over millennia.

Fortunately attractiveness takes many forms and what appears superficially unattractive often turns out to have deeper qualities and subtleties – this is a lesson that art demonstrates over and over again. But this doesn’t change the fact that attractiveness has a significant influence on human behaviour, it simply shifts the emphasis to another level where judgments are made by other criteria – though criteria that are no less aesthetic in nature.

Judgements are undoubtedly influenced by aesthetics. Why else would we pay attention to beauty if it were not a strong indicator of genetic fitness? Whether it be a fertile landscape, a ripe fruit or a sunny day we are commonly drawn to things that must have provided our ancestors with survival advantages and would therefore have contributed to the gradual selection of the genes we have inherited.

Do you find your friends attractive? How could you not? You might not find them physically attractive but there must be something that draws you to them, to want to spend time in their company. No doubt they enjoy spending time with you for similar reasons.

From the very earliest schooling I can remember liking some teachers more than others, both male and female. The brusque authoritarian ones who smelt of stale cigarettes and seemed to thrive on meting out various forms of punishment were almost always unattractive to me and I know for certain that I tried less and cared less about what they had to teach. Of course there were some subjects that even the worst teachers could not entirely ruin but their adverse influence could be clearly felt and it was by no means inconsiderable.

Over the last few decades a significant amount of research has been undertaken around this subject and whilst the results have not always been in agreement there are strong indications that attractiveness plays a role in the evaluations students and staff make of one another. Other studies, in which the variables have been more carefully controlled,  claim to have found no evidence of the influence of attractiveness. However, a closer inspection of this research reveals that the predominant means of evaluating attractiveness has been through the use of photographic images: through physiognomy alone and therefore, I would suggest, the underlying assumptions need to be examined a little more critically.

Part II will discuss two of the most prominent of these studies in order to distinguish between physical and behavioural attractiveness.