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In Court, Your Face Could Determine Your Fate

Sally Faulkner
Getty Images/Ikon Images

Your face has a profound effect on the people around you. Its expression can prompt assumptions about how kind, mean or trustworthy you are. And for some people, a study finds, it could help determine their fate in court.

Individuals who are deemed to have untrustworthy faces are significantly more likely to be on death row compared with other people convicted of murder, according to a study published Wednesday in Psychological Science. Inmates thought to have trustworthy faces, however, have a higher chance of receiving the more lenient punishment of life in prison.

"Facial trustworthiness is a significant predictor of the sentence people receive," says John Paul Wilson, who led the study and is a social psychologist at the University of Toronto.

Past research has shown that people make quick judgments about someone's character based on their face. For instance, we tend to place more trust in someone whose lips naturally turn upward when their face is relaxed, Wilson says; it's like they're making a smile. The opposite is felt for people who have lips that curve downward, like a frown.

To learn how these biases affect real-life scenarios with serious implications, the research team collected more than 700 mugshots of white and African-American criminals in Florida. Images of the state's prisoners are freely available to the public online.

Florida is one of the few states that still doles out the death sentence, so the team focused on inmates with murder convictions. Individuals who are convicted of the crime either are placed on death row or receive life without parole.

The photos, which ranged from scowling frowns and blank stares to toothy grins, were then judged by more than 200 people who participated in the study. Each participant viewed about 100 images and rated the individual's trustworthiness on a scale of 1 to 8, where one was very untrustworthy and 8 was extremely trustworthy.

While participants probably knew they were looking at prison inmates — the prison uniforms were visible in the mugshots — they were not given any information about the individuals, including what crime they committed and their sentence.

Afterward, Wilson and his team compared the ratings with the sentence the individuals had received.

They found that the average trustworthiness rating inmates received could predict whether they were on death row; the lower the score, the more likely they had a harsher punishment.

Race did not play a role, Wilson says. It all boiled down to the face.

To investigate a bit more, the team carried out the study again. But this time, they used photos of men who had once been convicted of murder and whose charges were later dismissed. The idea was to test the faces of people who were absolved to see if there was any bias against their faces.

The team gathered 37 headshots from the Innocence Project, a national litigation effort that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. In the past, the men had been on death row or had been sentenced to life in prison.

Like before, the photos were judged by participants. And this time? The results were the same. Even a person who was exonerated is judged based on perceived facial appearance, Wilson says.

"This finding shows that these effects aren't just due to more odious criminals advertising their malice through their faces, but rather suggests that these really are biases that might mislead people independent of any potential kernels of truth," he says.

Psychologist Alexander Todorov, a professor at Princeton University, says in an email to Shots that the study confirms faces can have an effect on extremely consequential legal decisions.

"Trustworthiness judgments matter in all domains of life ... and people cannot help but engage in these evaluative judgments," Todorov writes.

He adds that past research has shown that legal decisions are not immune to psychological biases.

But what can we — and, more importantly, the judicial system — do about these biases?

Wilson says that just knowing that we make these inaccurate judgments is a step in the right direction.

"People should be aware of these biases and their susceptibility to them," he says. "Any one of us could find ourselves on a jury one day, and the more we know about what can bias our judgments, the more we can be equipped to combat them."

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Nadia Whitehead