How trustworthy an inmate’s face appears to others seems to play a very large role in the severity of the sentence he receives, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science.
The study shows that inmates whose faces were rated as low in trustworthiness by independent observers were more likely to have received the death sentence than inmates whose faces were seen as more trustworthy, even when the inmates were later cleared of the crime.
The findings reveal just how powerful appearances can be in guiding judgment and decision making, influencing outcomes in situations that are literally a matter of life and death.
“The American justice system is built on the idea that it is blind to all but the objective facts, as exemplified by the great lengths we go to make sure that jurors enter the courts unbiased and are protected from outside influences during their service. Of course, this ideal does not always match reality,” said Drs. John Paul Wilson and Nicholas Rule, psychological scientists at the University of Toronto and co-authors on the study.
“Here, we’ve shown that facial biases unfortunately leak into what should be the most reflective and careful decision that juries and judges can make — whether to execute someone.”
Previous studies have confirmed a bias against faces perceived as untrustworthy, but much of the these have relied on study participants contemplating criminal verdicts hypothetically.
For the new study, the researchers wanted to know whether this bias extended beyond the lab to a very real, and consequential, decision: whether to sentence someone to life in prison or to death.
The researchers used the photos of 371 male inmates on death row in Florida; 226 of the inmates were white, 145 were black, and all were convicted of first-degree murder. They converted the photos to gray to minimize any variations in the images and asked an online panel of 208 American adults to look at the photos and rate them on trustworthiness using a scale from one (not at all trustworthy) to eight (very trustworthy).
The participants also evaluated photos of age- and race-matched inmates who had also been convicted of first-degree murder but received a sentence of life in prison instead of death. The raters did not know what sentence an inmate had received, or even that the photos were of inmates at all.
The findings showed that inmates who had received the death sentence tended to be perceived as less trustworthy than those sentenced to life in prison; in fact, the less trustworthy a face was deemed, the more likely it was that the inmate received the death sentence.
This connection remained even after the researchers took various other factors into account, such as facial maturity, attractiveness, and the width-to-height ratio of the face.
Importantly, the inmates in the two groups had committed crimes that were technically equally severe, and neither sentence would have allowed for the inmates to return to society — as such, the motivation to protect society could not explain the harsher punishments consistently given to the less trustworthy-looking inmates.
“Any effect of facial trustworthiness, then, seems like it would have to come from a premium in wanting to punish people who simply look less trustworthy,” the researchers said.
Even further, a follow-up study showed that the connection between perceived trustworthiness and sentencing emerged even when participants rated photos of inmates who had been sentenced but who were actually innocent and later exonerated.
“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,” said Wilson and Rule.
“In a few states, like Florida, it only takes a majority of jurors to sentence someone to death. In Alabama, judges even have the power to override juries that choose a life sentence by unilaterally replacing that sentence with the death penalty, which actually happens with some regularity,” the researchers noted.
“We think it is critical that people know and understand that these biases exist, else they might not have the presence of mind to police their thoughts and overcome them.”