You are on Instagram! Snap a selfie and share the human side of scientific research


By Paige Jarreau Ph.D


In general, U.S. adults trust scientists. Scientists’ credibility or trustworthiness ratings have been remarkably stable over time. Confidence in leaders of the scientific community is roughly the same or higher than it was in the 1970s according to Pew data. While U.S. adults may have very different attitudes on a variety of scientific issues than scientists do, Americans are more likely to trust scientists than other groups, especially the news media or elected officials, on these issues, including ones of public concern such as climate change and public health.

But does this general trust in science and scientists translate into people trusting scientists to conduct and communicate research findings with their (the public’s) needs, values and goals in mind? Not necessarily.

In their expanding role as communicators, scientists need to engage people’s emotions and values as well as their “brains.” And to do so, scientists as communicators need the public’s trust, but perhaps in a different way than the scientific community has focused on. In other words, trust goes beyond judgements of scientists’ competence and credibility as people who do science.

Trust is a funny thing. We can conceptualize it as having two fundamental dimensions: competence and warmth. People who are seen as “on our side” and as cooperators with us are generally seen to be warm – the friendly side of trustworthiness. Trust of scientist communicators and their messages in turn are important in that they can impact attitudes, decisions and behaviors related to scientific findings and issues of pressing public concern (Brossard & Nisbet, 2007; Rabinovich & Morton, 2012).

In a study published in PNAS in 2014, Susan Fiske and Cydney Dupree explored how credible, warm and competent Americans find scientists. They found that in the view of U.S. adults, scientists are generally seen as highly competent, but only moderately warm. On the warmth scale, scientists score about a 3 out of 5, 5 being most warm.

Warmth perceptions answer the question, “What intentions does this entity have?” People or social objects with cooperative intentions are seen as warm, approachable, and trustworthy. Competence perceptions answer question is “Is this entity capable of carrying out its intentions?” – Aaker, 

Garbinsky & Vohs, 2011The new National Academies of Sciences report on Communicating Science Effectively identifies many of the complexities of communicating science. One of these complexities is the public’s trust of scientists. Many factors are associated with how much an individual trusts scientists in general, including potentially that individual’s gender, age, race/ethnicity, political ideality and scientific knowledge level (National Science Board, 2016). That individual’s perceptions of scientists in general and individual scientists in particular also matters. It turns out that trust depends not only on perceptions of scientists’ expertise or competence (Lupia, 2013), but also on perceptions of scientists’ honesty, openness and morality (Renn and Levine, 1991), or scientists’ warmth (Fiske & Dupree, 2014). Both competence and warmth are critical constructs of trust, but perceived warmth often carries more weight in terms of attitudes and behaviors.

First, actors need to anticipate others’ intentions toward them; the warmth dimension – comprising such traits as morality, trustworthiness, sincerity, kindness, and friendliness – assesses the other’s perceived intent in the social context. – Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2007, p. 63.


The natural question that comes after learning about scientists’ “image problem” in terms of their warmth vs. competence is, can they do anything about this? A range of studies have highlighted avenues to increasing the perceived warmth and competence of different groups. Some are rather difficult to translate into practice. This study shows that experience physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth – but we can’t exactly give people hot cups of coffee every time they see or hear from a scientist. (On top of that, other researchers have tried to replicate that study without success).

But more seriously, there’s evidence that having a positive interaction or even imagining a positive interaction with an individual belonging to a group high in competence and low in warmth (like a scientist) can reduce hostility or envy towards that group, promoting more positive perceptions of their warmth. Lower perceptions of warmth are related to feelings of competition with or threat from the stereotyped group, so other strategies including demonstrating the honesty and integrity of scientists, for example, can improve perceptions of warmth and competence. There’s also the (deceptively?) simple act of smiling! In 2017 study, Liuba Belkin and colleagues found that individuals displaying expressions of happiness (in a video) were perceived to be more moral, a component of warmth, and trustworthy.

All this is to say that scientists may be able to improve public perceptions of their warmth through positive interactions, even digitally mediated ones (videos, pictures, etc.), with lay audiences.


As we look around for avenues to get scientists in front of lay audiences more often in a world that is increasingly saturated with digital information (and very often not the best or even correct information), social media platforms naturally come to mind. A rising number of scientists today turn to social media to network with colleagues, attract research funding opportunities, collect data and disseminate research findings. However, we don’t know a whole lot about how lay audiences perceive scientists who engage online. There’s evidence that heavy Internet and social media users, particular those who engage with science media sources online, demonstrate greater understanding of science and greater trust in scientists (based on research on science blog readers). However, this depends on the type of online media people engage with, however, with evidence that conservative media is associated with decreased trust in scientists.

Instagram, a social media platform popular among “the new kids on the block,” e.g. younger Americans, is a particularly interesting venue for increasingly the visibility of scientists. According to Pew Internet data published in August 2015, 55% of online adults ages 18 to 29 use Instagram. Roughly 32% of internet users are using Instagram, with a high percentage of users being younger adults and teens. Instagram audiences appear to be more diverse than audiences on Twitter, Reddit or many other social networks. Instagram may be an important avenue for engaging young adults and teens in science with visuals and helping them see scientists differently. And considering that the middle and high school years are a critical time for initially deciding one’s career path in life, changing how young people perceive scientists, or who looks like a scientist, via Instagram may encourage a greater number of women and minorities to enter STEM. (Gender science stereotypes start early).

Instagram is (in)famous for promoting a “selfie” or self-portrait culture. Faces engage us. Researchers at Georgia Tech found that Instagram photos with faces are 38% more likely to receive likes and 32% more likely to receive comments than photos without faces [PDF]. Humans simply make stories more shareworthy. Milkman and Berger (2013) found that scientific discoveries referencing people were more likely to be shared, in terms of a 5% increase in raters’ self-reported willingness to share a scientific summary.

Unfortunately, we know little about how the presence of a human face in images taken in scientific contexts impacts perceptions of scientists in particular, especially in the context of social media environments. We know that smiling faces make people appear more friendly, approachable and trustworthy in images, but the effect can be different for different people or different types of scientists, including for men vs. women. Instagram practices (such as posting selfies) may boost the perceived warmth but hurt the perceived credibility of female scientists but not male scientists, for example. “Female academics in the sciences are perceived as less competent and more warm than their male counterparts,” (Young, 2011). Attractive or feminine women who post self-portraits on Instagram may elicit responses of “But You Don’t Look Like A Scientist!” reflecting gender stereotypes.


We know little about the science Instagram world from a scientific perspective, or what effects scientists’ posts are having or could have on users. Many scientists are hesitant to join social media platforms that require them to share visual aspects of their work, expose their personalities and highlight themselves as the humans in and behind their science stories. Sharing purely scientific photos may be more socially acceptable among their colleagues than posting selfies. But what if we had scientific data on whether or not posting self-portraits on Instagram was an effective way for scientists to boost their perceived warmth and competence?

Myself and a group of science communication researchers at LSU, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Toronto and the University of Delaware are interested in gathering precisely this kind of data. We’ve started a new project, fondly called Scientist Selfies, to test whether a series of scientists humanizing themselves on Instagram (posting friendly photos of themselves in scientific contexts) and interacting with their followers may enhance perceptions of scientists’ warmth (related to perceptions of morality, honesty, sociability and openness)

We are working with scientists experienced in using Instagram to create realistic stimulus materials for a series of lab-based and online survey experiments to explore causal links between humanized science Instagram posts and viewers’ perceptions of scientists. We've already collected dozens of image series from over 50 real-life scientists to use in our lab-based and online experiments! We will ask participants to rate the warmth and credibility of the Instagramers as well as scientists in general, among other related outcome measures, after they browse controlled Instagram content. We expect this project to build scientists’ capacity to foster public perceptions of warmth as well as competence through visual social media posts.

Example of stimulus image series: A) science-only, B) male human element, C) female human element.

Our research team is currently crowd-funding this project, to raise funds needed for mobile devices to be used in lab-based experiments and funds needed for a representative U.S. adult survey experiment. Please visit our project page at experiment.com/scientistselfies, and pledge what you can. We don’t keep ANY of the funds if we don’t reach our funding goal. And we have some AMAZING perks for our backers, including t-shirts, science fashion boxes, personalized resume editing and social media advice services, mobile microscopes, custom scientific illustrations, social media plans and more!

Learn more at experiment.com/scientistselfies!

Dr. Paige Jarreau is a science communication specialist and researcher at Louisiana State University. Her research interests center around science communication in social media environments. She blogs at fromthelabbench.com. Follow her on Twitter @fromthelabbench, and follow this project on Instagram @scientistselfies.

Scientist Selfies team members include Dr. Lance Porter at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU, Dr. Becky Carmichael at LSU’s Communication across the Curriculum, CxC, Daniel Toker at the University of California, Berkeley, Samantha Yammine at the University of Toronto in the Department of Molecular Genetics, and Imogene Cancellare at the University of Delaware in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology.

Publications:
Jarreau, P. B. (2015). Science bloggers’ self-perceived communication roles. JCOM, 14(04), A02-2.
Jarreau, P. B., & Porter, L. (2017). Science in the Social Media Age: Profiles of Science Blog Readers. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 1077699016685558.
Brown Jarreau, P. (2014). The science of science blogging–the complicated task of defining a science blog. Impact of Social Sciences Blog.



2 comments:

  1. Hi Paige, this study sounds great! I just had a comment to make about the example stimulus image- I think the difference in clothing type between the man and woman will influence your results; as i would assume that the wearing of smart shirt and pants would be deemed more competent and less warm than the woman's attire of jeans and casual top. Unless that is one of the factors you are trying to assess, I just thought it might be helpful for me to point out. Good luck with the study!

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    1. Thank you for this comment!! We are definitely aware that differences in clothing (or things like wearing glasses, having tattoos, etc.) all may influence our results. We are leaning more toward realism in our stimulus images than controlling all of these factors, especially since we are committed to promoting real scientists through this research project. But we will probably be choosing to use images of scientists with lab-coats or similar clothing on in our image series for this reason. I'm also guessing that the more salient identities in the images (like gender and race) will take precedence over smaller things like clothing in predicting differences in perceived warmth and competence between images in a set like the one shown in this blog post, but we will try to include measures that ensure that this is the case.

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