Should microbiologists take selfies?

New research suggests that scientist who post selfies are perceived as warmer and more trustworthy.

Jun 04, 2019
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Narcissist, ugly and, duckface are three words associated with selfie according to Danish researcher Katarin Tiidenberg. It's easy to take a negative view of the selfie especially in science. Even if we look at positive words associated with "selfie" we get, fun, good looking, and smartphone which are hardly scientific. 

However, new research published in PLoS ONE by Paige Jarreau suggests that selfies could play an important role in how scientists are perceived. 

"Participants who viewed scientist selfies, especially posts containing the face of a female scientist, perceived scientists as significantly warmer than did participants who saw science-only images or control images."

Is this important? Well, yes. To me it is very important. In politics and in society, science is going though a crisis. We struggle to make compelling scientific arguments on critical issues from climate change to health. While there are lots of reasons for this, I believe that how scientists are perceived plays a role. During the Brexit referendum debates, British politician Michael Gove famously said "we've had enough of experts" suggesting that it wasn't just the information from experts that people were fed-up with, but the experts themselves. The perception of scientists by society is not good. Elitist, old, white, men sat pontificating in an ivory tower is a popular stereotype that harms the dissemination of scientific results.

Enter the smartphone wielding, selfie-taking heroes. Scientists who selfie are helping to destroy this perception by highlight the diversity, youth, and ordinary nature of scientists. Even within science, selfies and social media are helping give minorities visibility and a louder voice.

Am I a selfie fan? Well, no. I am not comfortable taking selfies and posting them online. I actually hate seeing pictures of myself. However, after reading the results of this paper, I am going to force myself to do it more and rope in as many microbiologists as I can.

Abstract

In an online Qualtrics panel survey experiment (N = 1620), we found that scientists posting self-portraits (“selfies”) to Instagram from the science lab/field were perceived as significantly warmer and more trustworthy, and no less competent, than scientists posting photos of only their work. Participants who viewed scientist selfies, especially posts containing the face of a female scientist, perceived scientists as significantly warmer than did participants who saw science-only images or control images. Participants who viewed selfies also perceived less symbolic threat from scientists. Most encouragingly, participants viewing selfies, either of male or female scientists, did not perceive scientists as any less competent than did participants viewing science-only or control images. Subjects who viewed female scientist selfies also perceived science as less exclusively male. Our findings suggest that self-portraiture by STEM professionals on social media can mitigate negative attitudes toward scientists.

Reference

Jarreau PB, Cancellare IA, Carmichael BJ, Porter L, Toker D, Yammine SZ (2019) Using selfies to challenge public stereotypes of scientists. PLoS ONE 14(5): e0216625. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216625

Ben Libberton

Science Communicator, Freelance

I'm a freelance science communicator, formerly a Postdoc in the biofilm field. I'm interested in how bacteria cause disease and look to technology to produce novel tools to study and ultimately prevent infection.

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