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Scientists Who Selfie On Instagram Gain More Public Trust

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Trust is hard to earn, but scientists may gain it more easily, thanks to social media.

A new study discovers that Instagram and selfies are good tools for science masters to capture the public's hearts.

"Social media channels, like Instagram, provide an exciting opportunity for scientists to improve their public image," says Becky Carmichael, coauthor and LSU Communication across the Curriculum science coordinator.

Several scientists use social media to present their discoveries and research outcomes to a larger audience. Truly, "social media scientists" are on the rise. The big question, however, is do people really trust the science genuises that show up in their feeds?

The answer may rely on how these scientists project themselves. The new study suggests that those who actually post selfies emanate a sense of trust and help flip the common public notion that scientists are competent but cold.

Competence Vs Warmth

Trust is a big word — hard to build yet easy to destroy. As per Susan Fiske, social psychologist from Princeton University, trust is dependent on two perceived characteristics: competence and warmth.

Competence is perceived by having the belief that a certain social group is intelligent and has what it takes to attain their goals.

Warmth is perceived by believing that a group is friendly, honest, selfless, and has benevolent objectives.

Putting competence and warmth perceptions together identify group stereotypes, such as those of scientists.

Both competence and warmth are essential in determining trust and action, but warmth turns out to be of higher importance.

In a 2014 study, Fiske demonstrated that Americans see scientists as competent, but moderately warm only.

The researchers of the new study is appalled by the idea that with social media being able to unite scientists and nonscientists, the competence and warmth perception on scientists is not a huge challenge at all.

Social Media To Change Stereotypes

Fiske said the team wondered if people will change their perception of scientists being competent but not warm, if they see actual faces, and glimpses of daily laboratory work.

The team started a project named ScientistsWhoSelfie, based on the hashtag that they introduced to raise awareness about the project.

The concept was to show the participants photos published in one of four "Scientists of Instagram" accounts. Images include a scientific environment or a piece of apparatus, such as a microscope, a bioreactor on a laboratory bench, or a plant project in a greenhouse without humans, but with captions connecting the photos to either male or female scientists' name; a smiling male scientist selfie in the same scientific location; and a smiling female scientist selfie, also in the same scientific place.

The participants were then asked about their perception on the scientists in the images, and scientists in general.

Selfies Convey Warmth

Recruited participants totalled to 1,620. Participants who saw smiling scientist selfies think the scientists in the photo and in general are warmer compared to those who only viewed the control images, which is the scientific setup without a person.

The perception of being warmer was specifically attributed to female scientists. There was also a slight increase in competence perception among females compared to males.

Paige Jarreau, lead author and LifeOmic's director of social media and science communication says the reason for the study findings may be attributed to the fact that people saw the scientists as every day, normal people, and not personalities belonging to a stereotypical elite group of geniuses.

In the future, researchers should look into how various kinds of selfies are seen by a larger audience, and how scientists can establish relationships with them.

Overall, Lance Porter, director of the LSU Social Media Analysis & Creation Lab, says the team believes that scientists who use social media to relate more to the public are helping to promote clarity of science, public trust, and science interest.

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

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