People decide quickly how trustworthy a stranger is, based on what his face looks like. And because experiments show that, regarding any particular individual, they generally come to the same conclusion, it would seems that there really are ‘trustworthy’ and ‘untrustworthy’ faces among us.
Results of the study showed that individuals who are perceived to be untrustworthy also actually suffer for their phizogs — and that in extreme cases this suffering may be literally fatal.
The researchers looked at convicted murderers in the American state of Florida. They selected 371 prisoners on death row and a further 371 who were serving life sentences. To avoid confounding variables, all those chosen were male and were either black or white (no Asians or other ethnic groups). Each sample included 226 white convicts and 145 black ones. A group of 208 volunteers were then invited to rate photographs of each convict’s face for trustworthiness, on a scale of 1 to 8, where 1 was “not at all trustworthy” and 8 was “very trustworthy”.
The results revealed that the faces of prisoners who were on death row had an average trustworthiness of 2.76, and those serving life sentences averaged 2.87. This is not a huge difference, but one that was statistically significant — and suggested that untrustworthy-looking defendants were more likely to face the lethal injection, if convicted, than trustworthy-looking ones.
To show that this was not a result of people with untrustworthy faces actually committing more heinous (and therefore, death-penalty-worthy) murders, the researchers also looked at the faces of those who had been convicted of murder, sentenced and then acquitted on appeal, usually on the basis of DNA evidence.
These innocents, too, had more often been sentenced to death in their original trials if their faces were rated untrustworthy.
The results, the researchers said, 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.
(ADAPTED FROM STUDY ABSTRACT & REPORT IN‘THE ECONOMIST’)