Some professions are more likely to be entered into if people possess desired morphological features (e.g., models are very good-looking in part because of higher than average facial symmetry). The most skillful and technical soccer players tend to be shorter individuals possessing low centers of gravity (e.g., Pele, Maradona, and Messi but Zidane is an exception to this general rule). In other instances, one’s likelihood of climbing the organizational hierarchy is associated with a particular phenotypic trait (e.g., taller men are more likely to assume leadership/managerial positions; see here; on a related note, see my previous post on an organization’s verticality and the ascribed power of a boss). In today’s post, I’d like to discuss a study that explored height and physical attractiveness in a context where such traits should otherwise be irrelevant to the professional task at hand.
In a somewhat whimsical paper published in 2006 in the British Medical Journal, Antoni Trilla, Marta Aymerich, Antonio M. Lacy, and Maria J. Bertran compared the height and physical attractiveness of three groups of people: Male surgeons (n = 12), male physicians (n = 12), and four male actors who have played physicians or surgeons in a film or television series (Harrison Ford, George Clooney, Patrick Dempsey, and Hugh Laurie). The actual physicians and surgeons (randomly selected from the University of Barcelona Hospital Clinic) provided their heights and digital photos of themselves, which were subsequently rated by eight female health workers (five nurses and three physicians) on a 1-7 scale (ugly to very good looking). The authors argued that no systematic bias in the self-reporting of height is likely to have occurred, a premise that is tenuous at best since surgeons are known to suffer from the God complex! Of the eight physical attractiveness ratings for each photo, the highest and lowest scores were removed as outliers, yielding six scores per photo. The average ages of the physicians and surgeons were statistically the same. Notwithstanding the many limitations of this study (e.g., extraordinarily small sample sizes; female raters knew the targets and so their physical attractiveness ratings might have been tainted by extraneous factors), here are the three key findings:
1) Surgeons were taller than physicians (179.4 cm vs. 172.6 cm; p = .01)
2) Surgeons were judged as better looking than physicians (4.39 vs. 3.65; p = .01)
3) Perhaps not surprisingly, the actors were judged as better looking than surgeons and physicians. Their mean attractiveness score was 5.96, which is statistically higher than the corresponding attractiveness means for surgeons and physicians (p-values of .013 and .003 respectively).
Two fun points that I’d like to conclude with:
a) Can you think of an actor who has played a physician and who is an actual physician? Hint (and with all due respect to him): He does not adhere to the Hollywood stereotype of the dashing physician.
b) Did you know that in the British medical tradition, physicians are referred to as “doctor” but surgeons as “mister.” See here for a fascinating account of this practice.
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