What if there was a likable person test that we could take to see how other people really view us scientists? How would that work?
It turns out that a sense of likability might be more influential in academia than some of us might think, but it’s often problematic too. This came to mind because I remember as a trainee that a faculty candidate somewhere came off as extremely unlikable and someone said something like, “we ought to pre-screen for likability.”
Then I was thinking, “Are scientists generally viewed as likable by either each other or the public?”
Likable person test in ‘cut-throat’ academia
I also remember an episode of the old sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond where the main character Ray, who is a generally likable guy even if kind of a doofus, encounters someone who intensely dislikes him. It’s a shock for Ray. Not only does everybody not love Raymond, but someone hates him. At first, when they meet face-to-face the guy pretends that he’s fine with Ray but that doesn’t last long.
If you’ve been around in science for very long you’ve likely realized at times that there are probably other scientists who don’t like you. I know I have encountered that reality, but writing a blog for a dozen years can multiply the scope of those who dislike you. Maybe no one hates you but I’m not so sure about me (think stem cell clinic folks).
How important is general likability specifically in academia? Does it affect your career? It seems like the answer is often “yes” to both of these questions, but should likability be a factor?
Science can be rough as a career so finding likable, supportive people can be helpful.
To be liked or not be liked
The stakes are high here.
For example, you can imagine a scenario where someone who dislikes you ends up as your grant or paper reviewer. If you go up for promotion or even tenure, what if an external letter writer ends up being someone who strongly dislikes you? In that kind of situation, some invited letter writers might decline to participate as they couldn’t be objective, but others might enjoy trashing you and your career. What if a colleague in your own department is not your fan? These things happen.
I’ve heard some academics say they’d prefer to not be liked by others. They joke that they’d rather be disliked and even feared by competitors.
However, I suspect many scientists would prefer that nearly all of their colleagues like them. They may feel a little like Ray from the TV show.
Wouldn’t being viewed as generally likable help with grant and paper reviews? It probably couldn’t hurt.
How about fostering more collaborations?
Help with the promotion process?
The problems with likability in academic science
Of course, likability is wildly subjective. For many scientists, their sense of likability is also very context-dependent. It is subject to all kinds of random and even negative influences too.
There is evidence that people in general may view others who are more similar to them as more likable. I can see ways that conceptions of likability can be impacted by racism, sexism, and perhaps other problems and biases.
Does one’s social media presence confer likability or take away from it? I can see that going either way.
Does someone’s physical attractiveness factor into likability? You wouldn’t think that should be a factor in science but could it be?
More than once in the decades that I’ve been in science in various jobs I’ve heard people say the equivalent of “he’s a good guy”. This was even mentioned positively once in the context of reviewing that person’s grant.
The science of likability…in science?
There isn’t much out there written on the influence of likability in academia that I could find. I didn’t find any data.
This 2011 Science article seems kind of cringy now in 2023.
A 2016 Inside Higher Ed piece is sobering. The author recounts a dinner conversation about how someone got tenure in part because of likability. She then writes:
“This dinner party conversation crystallized something I had read about for years and witnessed firsthand throughout graduate school and the long slog toward tenure. Kind, thoughtful academics — people who supposedly reject racism, sexism and heterosexism — reproduce existing power structures through implicit bias that makes them find some people more likable than others. Such scholars would not consciously withhold opportunities from women, people of color or LGBTQ people. Yet unconsciously, in myriad tiny ways, they tilt toward people they perceive to be like themselves. Doors are offhandedly opened, names generously mentioned and obstacles casually removed.”
This kind of thing remains a big problem in academic science.
So what do we do moving forward?
For one thing, be conscious that likability is just not very scientific. It can be swayed in toxic ways. We need to be more aware of this kind of feeling and thinking as we evaluate colleagues, papers, grants, etc. It can lead to bad decisions.
By the way, there are many versions of a likable person test on the web. Supposed likability traits include being genuine, a good listener, caring, not judgemental, having a good sense of humor and the list goes on. Does that sound like academia? Maybe in some cases and if you can find such people that’s great. On the other end of the spectrum, check this one out: The scientist’s guide to insulting other scientists.
I took one likability test and I’m not quite sure how to interpret the results (see above). Maybe part of the friendliness result relates to a bit of introvertedness.