Contributed by Nisha K. Cooch, PhD
Doctors are some of the most respected people in society. It can therefore be difficult to imagine that patients would judge their doctors based on their looks. However, judging the looks of people (and things) is something humans are programmed to do.
Taking in pieces of information allows us to categorize what we are exposed to and helps us to make sense of our world. When we try to make rapid assessments about people, we develop biases that impact our thoughts and behaviors. These biases even extend to what we think of doctors.
A person is judged based on their physical attractiveness and weight. Doctors are subject to the same biases as other people and so are also judged based on their attractiveness and weight.
Being attractive is an advantage in life. When we see attractive people, we assume that they are smart and kind, even if they aren’t. Studies have shown that we also deem the information that they provide as more credible than information provided by less attractive people. For example, students believe that they learn more from attractive professors.
Studies on less attractive people have shown that they are subject to negative perceptions. We tend to think that unattractive people do not have strong social or professional skills. We also view these people as less honest and less trustworthy than their attractive counterparts.
In the medical profession, it is important that people believe that you are both kind and smart. Though there is little that can be done about certain aspects of your physical appearance, research has found ways to improve your appearance that will improve how you are judged. Specifically, smiling can make people like you more. Moreover, people who smile more are considered to have better personalities. They are also viewed as more intelligent than those who do not smile.
We all know that being overweight is unhealthy. Knowing that obesity puts people at risk for health problems dramatically affects the way we view people who are overweight. We also know that we have some control over our weight. We therefore tend to think that overweight people do not take responsibility for their weight or are lazy, even if they suffer from medical conditions which predispose them to be overweight. These beliefs about overweight people lead us to discriminate against them, even if they are doctors.
Research has been performed to assess what people think of overweight doctors and studies show that people view doctors who are overweight as less credible and less trustworthy than thinner doctors. Our view of overweight doctors may be even worse than our view of other overweight people!
In accordance with this idea, studies show that patients are less likely to follow advice of overweight doctors. Having your patients trust you and your medical opinions is critical to your success as a doctor. Doctors should therefore keep in mind that their weight impacts both their health and their professional careers.
Related reading: How patients compare and choose doctors: a neuroscientist’s view
Other Aspects of Physical Appearance
While there is significant research demonstrating the importance of physical attractiveness and weight on perception, other aspects of physical appearance matter too. For instance, complying with stereotypes can improve how others perceive you in a given role. If a doctor wears a stethoscope or lab coat, patients are more likely to perceive the doctor as competent. People also tend to like people more if the person’s skin colour matches their own. Studies have shown that patients prefer to see doctors that are the same race as them. They also rate these doctors higher than doctors of a different race.
The last word
We are all subject to peoples’ biases. If we understand those biases, we can overcome them. For doctors, finding ways to appear healthy and happy can improve how others view them. Staying in shape and smiling at patients are strategies for meeting this goal.
Nisha Kaul Cooch is the founder of BioInnovation Consulting LLC, a life sciences communications firm based in Washington DC. Dr. Cooch holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and specializes in the intersection of technology and decision making.
Views expressed are the author’s own.