Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Discriminating Attractiveness (Part II)

In 1989 Stephen Buck and Drew Tiene undertook a study of student evaluations of expected teacher effectiveness made on the basis of photographs. In addition to the photographic images Buck and Teine also provided printed descriptions of the “teaching philosophies” of the pictured teachers in terms of  authoritarianism or humanism. In contrast to earlier studies where only photographs were used Buck and Tiene discovered that in this instance the physical appearances of the teachers made no difference to the evaluations made. Buck and Tiene concluded that: “Attractiveness by itself was not found to have an effect on any of the ratings of teacher effectiveness.”

On the face of it this is very reassuring because it suggests that the physiognomies of teachers play an insignificant role in perceptions of their potential to teach when compared with other factors. However, it could be argued that the underlying assumption - that appearances are the only gauge of attractiveness - is fundamentally mistaken. Someone’s teaching-philosophy is by no means a neutral description of their approach to teaching. On the contrary, it is a significant indicator of their beliefs and values as a teacher and more generally as a human being. Buck and Teine appear to have overlooked the fact that beliefs and values are major contributors to behaviour - and behaviour is surely an inextricable component of attractiveness. 

So whilst physical appearances might have a negligible influence on peoples’ evaluations of one another, behaviour on the other hand has a significantly greater impact. Your friends are probably not your friends because they are physically attractive (although you might find them so). They are your friends because of the things they say and do, because of the many subtle and attractive ways they behave. 

If art can tell us anything about this subject it is that we very definitely make judgements, not simply on the content of expression but on its form. But where people are concerned, expression comes in many different forms, not merely the physical. Few people would disagree that photographs are a dubious means to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers or students. But if no other clues are available we will inevitably make assumptions based on whatever evidence is presented. It is no surprise therefore that the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) phased out the use of applicant photographs more than a decade ago. 

If behaviour really is a more accurate determinant of the effectiveness of teachers, then how much time do you imagine would be needed to form an accurate evaluation of a teacher? Presumably it would be necessary to get to know them a little first, say an hour at least to be really sure. Longer? In the early 1990’s psychologist Nalini Ambady and colleagues conducted a number of studies of evaluations of expected teacher competence based on video footage. They found that even with as little as 6 seconds of video: “complete strangers were able to predict quite accurately the ratings of teachers by students who had interacted with them over the course of a whole semester!” Indeed they found that with only 2 seconds of silent video the evaluations suffered little in accuracy. 

Like Buck and Tiene, Ambady and colleagues found no significant evidence of the influence of attractiveness on the evaluations. But, like Buck and Tiene, they also made the assumption that attractiveness is a measure of physical appearances. Closer examination of the behavioural criteria used to rate the teachers reveals that eleven out of the fifteen behaviours evaluated could, without the slightest difficulty, be considered as attractive - they were as follows: Accepting, Active, Attentive, Competent, Empathetic, Enthusiastic, Honest, Likeable, Optimistic, Supportive and Warm. The implication then, is that the majority of qualities considered important in highly rated teachers are also commonly regarded as attractive.

Part III further compares physical appearances with behaviours and concludes by considering the implications of a alternative interpretation of the nature of behavioural traits.


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