We have all heard that how we appear matters: that people judge us by our appearance without even realizing it. People will look at our faces and based on what they perceive unconsciously, will decide whether we are trustworthy.

A recent study confirms this link between appearance and trustworthiness. In the July 25, 2015 edition of The Economist (and reported on other websites as well), the author of “Looks Could Kill” reports on a study by John Wilson and Nicholas Rule, psychologists at the University of Toronto, published in the July 2015 issue of Psychological Science that concludes that people really do decide quite quickly how trustworthy  is a stranger  based on what her face looks like.

In their Psychological Science article, “Facial Trustworthiness Predicts Extreme Criminal-Sentencing Outcomes”, Wilson and Rule describe their study in which they used photos of 371 male inmates as the object of their experiment. As explained in Science Daily:

The researchers obtained 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 scale 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 1 (not at all trustworthy) to 8 (very trustworthy). The raters 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. Importantly, the raters did not know what sentence an inmate had received, or even that the photos depicted inmates.

Wilson and Rule found that inmates who had received the death sentence tended to be perceived as less trustworthy than those sentenced to life in prison; in fact, their analyses showed that the less trustworthy a face was deemed, the more likely it was that the inmate received the death sentence.

This association remained even after the researchers took various other factors — such as facial maturity, attractiveness, and the width-to-height ratio of the face — into account.

The researchers point out that 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 punishment doled out to the less trustworthy looking individuals.

“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,” they explain.

More striking, a follow-up study showed that the link between perceived trustworthiness and sentencing emerged even when participants rated photos of inmates who had been sentenced but who were actually innocent and were 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,” say Wilson and Rule.

The research ultimately shows 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. (“Trustworthiness of an inmate’s face may seal his fate”–July 15, 2015, ScienceDaily at 2.)

The importance of this study is that it involves post convictions or actually convicted subjects. Previous studies (about which I have blogged) have involved participants looking at photos of subjects who had hypothetically committed crimes; the crimes were contemplated, not real. In contrast, this study involved actual felons. (Id.)

While this study involves criminals, its import to everyday life is obvious; unwittingly and unconsciously, we all judge people by their appearance and more importantly, decide whether someone is trustworthy simply by her facial appearance. And based on what we see, we will make decisions that affect that person. If we perceive that person to be less trustworthy, our decision may be more severe and much less forgiving than one made based on what we perceive to be a “trustworthy” face. And… we could have gotten it all wrong! As this study shows, our judgements (assumptions?) can be wrong as evidenced by the part of this study showing that even those exonerated were judged to be untrustworthy.

One of the sad truths that this study points out is that as much as we all want to think that “justice is blind”, it is not. Every one of us carries our unconscious biases and assumptions into any dispute, negotiation, litigation or trial. While as jurors, we swear that we will be impartial, our own unconscious biases may prevent that.

One of the most important things I have learned as a mediator is to never assume. This study   dramatically bears this out. While first impressions may matter, they may be wrong and so take the time to know the person before judging!

…. Just something to think about!




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