Flashback Friday: The look of a convict’s face could determine whether he gets the death penalty.

By Seriously Science | July 14, 2017 6:00 am
Photo: flickr/Thomas Hawk

Photo: flickr/Thomas Hawk

Despite evidence to the contrary, many like to think that the U.S. justice system works pretty well. This is especially true when it comes to the ultimate punishment — the death penalty. But as we know, not everyone on death row is guilty. So where does the process go wrong? Here, researchers tested whether snap judgements of peoples’ faces affected whether they were given the death penalty. To do so, the researchers had volunteers judge the “trustworthiness” of the faces of people who had been convicted of murder and gotten either a life sentence or the death penalty, or people who had been on death row and subsequently exonerated. In both cases, a lack of facial “trustworthiness” was correlated with being more likely to have been sentenced to the death penalty, even in the case of people who were actually innocent. (By the way, similar results were previously seen for people who were seen as more “stereotypically Black.”) As the authors put it, “These results highlight the power of facial appearance to prejudice perceivers and affect life outcomes even to the point of execution, which suggests an alarming bias in the criminal-justice system.”

Facial Trustworthiness Predicts Extreme Criminal-Sentencing Outcomes

“Untrustworthy faces incur negative judgments across numerous domains. Existing work in this area has focused on situations in which the target’s trustworthiness is relevant to the judgment (e.g., criminal verdicts and economic games). Yet in the present studies, we found that people also overgeneralized trustworthiness in criminal-sentencing decisions when trustworthiness should not be judicially relevant, and they did so even for the most extreme sentencing decision: condemning someone to death.In Study 1, we found that perceptions of untrustworthiness predicted death sentences (vs. life sentences) for convicted murderers in Florida (N = 742). Moreover, in Study 2, we found that the link between trustworthiness and the death sentence occurred even when participants viewed innocent people who had been exonerated after originally being sentenced to death. These results highlight the power of facial appearance to prejudice perceivers and affect life outcomes even to the point of execution, which suggests an alarming bias in the criminal-justice system.”

Bonus excerpt:

“Although it is possible that people who look less trustworthy commit more odious crimes, we found evidence for sentencing biases based on facial trustworthiness even among targets exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted. This shows compelling evidence for the ability of facial appearance to guide the severity of sentencing decisions. These data, along with the fWHR data from Study 1, also help to dispel the possibility that sitting on death row causes one’s appearance to look less trustworthy (as through negative affect or hopelessness), given that the photos in Study 2 were not incarceration photos but were taken after exoneration.”

Related content:
Flashback Friday: Innocent until proven bearded.
People prefer mates with a 22% resemblance to themselves.
Psychologists can give you false memories of having committed a crime.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: reinforcing stereotypes
  • http://thethinkingabout.blogspot.com Jordan Dickerson

    The death penalty is the revenge of the state.

    • Not_that_anyone_cares, but…

      ”Death penalty” is an oxymoron.

  • OWilson

    I would add, the look of their bank account!

    Laws don’t apply to the powerful.

    Don’t recall ever seeing a rich guy, or a popular culture celeb on Death Row! :)

  • polistra24

    More computer-based nonsense. Juries have biases to be sure, but in an actual courtroom the jury is responding to the defendant’s whole demeanor and personality, AND to the defense attorney’s attitude toward the jury. A condescending attorney can do as much harm as a tough-looking defendant.

    Pictures on paper or a screen have zero connection to what really happens in the courtroom.

  • J Smith

    (By the way, similar results were previously seen for people who were seen as more “stereotypically Black.”)

    discover is employing writers with more and more dishonest writing.

    That experiment showed black test subjects were more likely to infer criminality on persons who were “more stereotypically black.”

    BTW we know that blacks is LESS likely to get the death penalty than whites. One does not simple use two numbers, the per capital population that is black (13.7%) and death penalty rate. One needs a third number — the commission rate. Blacks are 13.7% of the population but commit over 50% of first degree homicide. That cohort is well below 50% of persons wither executed or on death row. in fact that black cohort is less likely to be shot by police as well per violent felony committed than the white cohort.

    One has to ask if men of all backgrounds compared to women are more likely to be a) perceived by the general public as more violent, threatening or guilty, b) perceived by police as such c) stopped by police more, d) searched more often e) arrested more often, f) charged more often g) convicted more often h) sentenced to longer terms i) more of the prison population, j) more likely to be on death row, k) more likely to be eventually executed, and l) more likely to be shot by cops.

    They are in all cases: because they commit more crimes. Are the above an inherent bigotry or an accurate reflection of commission rates. Is it bigoted for a woman to fear for her personal safety more in a situation in a dark parking garage with an unknown man nearby or an unknown woman nearby?



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