Jurors can be more likely to recommend the death penalty if they don’t like the look of the defendant.
It has long been known that certain facial features, such as downturned lips and a heavy brow, can make a person appear untrustworthy to others.
Even though these things bear no indication on a person’s actual character, these biases have a significant influence on everyday social interactions as well as high-stakes decisions – from who to elect to political office, to whether a jury recommends life in prison or the death penalty.
A recent study by Columbia University has further supported prior findings, discovering that when real-world defendants have facial features that appear untrustworthy, they are more likely to be sentenced to death than to life imprisonment.
Experiments also showed that mock jurors were more likely to find a hypothetical defendant guilty if they had an “untrustworthy facial appearance”.
However, researchers at Columbia also found that there was a way to help people overcome these biases – thereby preventing possible injustices in the future.
In the experiment, researchers gathered 1,400 volunteers and had them undergo a training intervention.
Results, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that this intervention successfully stopped them from relying on facial feature stereotypes.
Crucially, researchers were also able to eliminate biases both consciously and unconsciously – which is important as unconscious reactions can still seriously impact a person’s everyday behavior.
Participants were first asked to decide whose mugshots they felt were trustworthy or untrustworthy, among a group of 400 inmates in Florida – all of whom were convicted of murder.
Offenders whose facial features were judged to be “less trustworthy” were far more likely to be sentenced to death than their counterparts who had “more trustworthy” facial features.
This was even so in cases when a participant otherwise showed no biases against certain facial features.
Researchers then subjected participants to an intervention that trained them to dismantle their unconscious associations between specific facial features and an untrustworthy reaction.
This was done via a computer task that encouraged participants to associate untrustworthy-looking facial features with trustworthy behaviors, thereby making the implicit link between trustworthiness and appearance become unstable and unreliable to their minds.
A control group of participants who never underwent the training continued to show strong appearance-based biases.
Lead author Jon Freeman, an associate professor of psychology, said: “These findings bolster prior work that facial stereotypes may have disastrous effects in the real world, but, more importantly, provide a potential inroad toward combating these sorts of biases.
“By exposing a cognitive pathway toward eradicating facial stereotypes, future research must investigate whether this training could be broadly applied and how to ensure the bias reduction persists over time.
“If there are consequential judgments that are biased by facial stereotypes, our findings suggest that they have the potential to be flexibly remapped and dismantled.”
Racial and gender-based biases are also known to strongly affect how trustworthy or untrustworthy a person is judged to be.
Therefore, Columbia’s researchers decided to conduct their studies solely with white male faces, in order to provide a controlled response.
However, with the effects now established, the team is looking to conduct a follow-up experiment where they will test the intervention with faces diverse in race and gender.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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