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Do Looks Matter? Learn The Power Of The Dr. Fox Effect

Intuitively, we know the answer to this question. Looks do matter. In her book Survival of the Prettiest, The Science Of Beauty, Dr. Nancy Etcoff writes of the many advantages the empirically attractive have over the rest of us in society. But, lets examine this premise from another angle. Do we expect a person to look the part they play in society?

In the early 1970’s, three psychiatry professors designed an experiment to discover how ones appearance influences our perception of competence.

There was a practical reason for their experiment. As educators, they wanted to determine if charismatic teachers could “seduce” students into providing higher evaluation scores. This was important to educators because student evaluation of teachers (SET) was used to determine hiring, salary, and budget decisions.

For the experiment, they organized three separate lectures to be held at a continuing education training retreat near Lake Tahoe. The lecture was titled, Mathematical Game Theory And Its Application To Physician Education (basics/education). Those in attendance included professional psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and educational administrators.

Here is the twist: the professors hired an actor to give the lectures. The man knew absolutely nothing about game theory and members of the audience would have a pretty good understanding of the topic. The actor was taught just enough to get through the session. More importantly, he was instructed to convey irrelevant, conflicting, and meaningless content.

The first panel of attendees saw the lecture live and the other two groups saw a video of the first, live, lecture. After each session, the attendees were asked to complete an evaluation of the speaker. How do you think the attendees rated this double-talking, yet charismatic actor?

This conclusion was posted in the Journal of Medical Education: “The hypothesis was supported when 55 subjects responded favorably at the significant level to an eight-item questionnaire concerning their attitudes toward the lecture. The study serves as an example to educators that their effectiveness must be evaluated beyond the satisfaction with which students view them and raises the possibility of training actors to give ‘legitimate’ lectures as an innovative approach toward effective education. The authors conclude by emphasizing that student satisfaction with learning may represent little more than the illusion of having learned.”

Fifty-five highly educated professionals, many of whom were authorities on the subject of game theory, believed this individual was an expert on the topic. How was it so easy to dupe them? (See the actual video and judge for yourself)

Here’s how:

First, he looked the part. The professors selected an actor who looked distinguished and sounded authoritative. They leveraged the representativeness heuristic, which is a form of categorizing whereby we determine how likely a person is to be the member of a particular group by considering how “similar” that person is to the group in question. Basically, the actor looked like the stereotypical psych lecturer. He also sounded the part. The actor spoke with ease and confidence even when asked specific questions from the audience. Even though these were questions for which he had no understanding and just made up answers on the spot.

Second, he compared favorably to the group. They utilized the perceptual contrast principle, which is when our minds accentuate the difference between two items presented one after another. In the video, the expert that introduced the phony speaker wore very casual clothing: short pants and sandals. They were on a retreat. The actor wore a suit and tie. He also wore glasses, which gave him an intellectual appearance. Many members of the audience were also more casually dressed than the presenter. Comparably speaking, the actor looked like an authority figure. He even called attention to this difference in wardrobe in his opening statement.

Third, he established instant credibility through association. The professors employed the concept of social proof by introducing him with the title, “Dr. Myron L. Fox, an authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior.” And, they even wrote an impressive, but fictitious curriculum vitae. The people with position authority, the folks in charge of the lecture, established the “fact” that Dr. Fox was an authority on the subject. As a result, the people in the room, actual experts on or at least familiar with the topic presented, didn’t question the validity of the speaker. There again is social proof. Everyone was on board.

The Dr. Fox experiment taught us something beyond the fact that students will rate charismatic speakers or teachers higher on evaluations. It taught us how ingrained stereotypes are in our unconscious. Simply looking or acting the part is often enough to sway us into believing someone is who we want to believe they are.

On the flip side, we can leverage the cognitive shortcut of stereotyping to our advantage. No matter what you do, it is important to look the part. Or, as my colleague Chris used to say, “fake it ‘til you make it.” That’s the Dr. Fox Effect.


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