Would you trust scientists more if you could see them?

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Try to picture in your mind your idea of a “scientist.” Maybe it’s someone dressed in white, standing over a magnifying glass in a lab, all alone. Maybe it’s someone in the rain forest, collecting foliage samples. Maybe it’s the mad scientists on cartoons or even bad scientists that appear on popular shows like Stranger Things.

Being a scientist isn’t a public job, but many want to change that – and gain more trust from the public by letting us see a glimpse of them doing their work. And how are they doing that? Scientist selfies!

Here, we have the_brain_scientist from Berkely, CA, showing us a scan of his brain. Apparently, scientists get up to the darndest things: “Last night, my lab-mate stuck me inside a brain scanner to test out some of his scanning protocols,” he wrote. “He didn’t need me to do anything while I was in there, so I straight up watched Netflix.”

Instantly, we have a different view of Berkeley scientists who study the brain. And that’s the point behind the Instagram hashtag #scientistswhoselfie, which currently has 16,222 posts.

A study related to the hashtag recently published in PLOS ONE, called “Using selfing to challenge public stereotypes of scientists” showed that scientists’ and researchers’ posting their selfies to social media succeeded in challenging stereotypes of scientists.

Scientist Selfies was launched by a group of U.S. and Canadian researchers in 2017.

Paige Jarreau, the lead researcher for the Scientist Selfies project, said that they chose Instagram because “it struck me [that] of all the platforms, Instagram seemed to be one where scientists are visually presenting themselves to others in ways that showed them as human.”

And making scientists more human was the point. A 2014 study reported the American public viewed scientists as competent, but not necessarily “warm.” The Scientist Selfies project knew that scientists were competent, but wanted to warm them up – and use selfies to see if the American public could tell the difference.

The study included 1,620 participants through a paid Qualtrics panel who were assigned either “control” groups (like the Instagram group Humans of Broadway), or science-themed posts, such as a picture of scientific tools, lab coats, and the like, or male- or female- shot selfie photographs of a scientist holding a beaker or various tools.

Jarreau says that the study decided to “look at, essentially, the presence of a human face or not with everything else being equal.”

After each participant viewed their assigned Instagram account, they filled out surveys to share their impressions of what they’d seen, evaluate the warmth and competence of the Instagrammers, and how they discerned scientists in general.

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Dennis (@dennis.yu90) capturing my ridiculous dive set up. Not pictured are four Sola 3800+ video lights and a SmallHD monitor. Was great to get into the water again! I am clearly out of practice, but happy that my first warmup dive was an easy 48’. While it was fun, I have been feeling meh, barely slept, didn’t eat and ended up seasick after looking through the fisheye lens too much in the swell. Ended up calling it early, and thats okay! I also used a new kayak and I was way over the weight limit, causing me to fall off of it nearly a dozen times. Major props to Dennis for being an understanding and nonjudgmental dive buddy while I slowly kicked my way back to shore! … where I proceeded to be sunburned until I was bright red. #fisheye #freedive #freediving #freedivers #apnea #hypoxia #divingdeeper #onebreath #snorkeling #spearfishing #spearos #diving #scuba #kelpforest . #pacificocean #california #fishing #sustainable #caughtnotbought #oceantotable . #monterey #montereybay #bayarea #underwater . #stillascientist #scientistswhoselfie #actuallivingscientist

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The study found that participants saw scientists posting selfies to be warmer, more trustworthy, and no less competent than scientists posting science-only photos on Instagram. In particular, those who had viewed female scientist selfies were less likely to see scientists as being mostly male.

Jarreau was also pleased that ”[Women scientists] were perceived as very competent and very warm.”

The success of the study left the researchers with another thing to think about: “Is personality now a prerequisite for good science communication?” asked researcher Heidi Gardner.

Overall, however, Jarreau wasn’t worried. “We’ve taken one little step towards the idea of scientists being more open. There’s many ways you can do that, but one way is to show yourself in the vulnerable state – that is what a selfie is. That human communication – especially through a visual – is what we were trying to get at in this study.”