- Findings contradict generally held opinion that attractive people are treated more leniently by the legal system
- Spanish researchers also find that women who fit ‘prototype of a battered woman’ more likely to have self defence story accepted
By Damien Gayle
PUBLISHED:03:32 EST, 12 October 2012| UPDATED:03:32 EST, 12 October 2012
Women charged with murder who plead self defence are more likely to be perceived as guilty if have ‘thick lips’ and ‘smooth and harmonious facial features’, says a study.
The findings made by a team from the University of Grenada, Spain, contradict the generally held stereotype that beauty deflects criminal responsibility.
They found that in the case of a woman claiming self defence in the killing of an abusive husband, police officers were more likely to regard as innocent defendants who were described as unattractive.
The findings also showed that women perceived as more independent and in charge of their lives were also more likely to be seen as guilty of murder.
Legal processes are ideally conducted without bias, but in reality biases influence all human judgements and looking at how these prejudices shape behaviour should help to minimise their effect.
In the past, social psychology has widely accepted the contention that beautiful people are less likely to be regarded as criminally responsible.
As the study’s authors put it: ‘Attractive people are often perceived as having positive personality features and attributes in consonance with the implicit theory that “beauty is goodness”.’
This ‘halo effect’ has also been previously shown to influence perception of other traits, with attractive people seen as ‘more sociable, friendly, warm, competent and intelligent than unattractive individuals.’
To test this effect in the scenario of domestic violence, the Grenada team created fictitious scenarios in which a woman was accused of stabbing her husband to death as he lay in bed.
In each case, the woman’s story was that she had been the victim of years of domestic violence and had finally killed her husband out of self defence. The only difference between narratives was the defendant’s description.
In one story she was described with features typically regarded as beautiful: ‘María is an attractive woman with thick lips; smooth, harmonious facial features; straight blonde hair; and a slender and elegant appearance.’
In the other story she was described as ‘unattractive’: ‘María is an unattractive woman with thin lips, stern and jarring facial features, dark bundled hair, and is neither slender nor elegant in appearance.’
The other variable, which the researchers evaluated separately from the defendant’s physical attractiveness, was her likeness to the ‘prototype of a battered woman’.
In some of the stories: ‘María is a 36-year old housewife with two children (six and three years old) who has been married for 10 years. María wears sunglasses that hide her face, has poor personal appearance and dress, and is timid in answering the judge or lawyers’ questions.’
While in the others: ‘María is a financial consultant of a leading company; she has no children, and has been married for ten years. María is a well-dressed fashion-conscious woman, calm and resolute in her interactions with the judge and lawyers.’
The researchers then showed 169 police officers from the Spanish national and local police forces one of the stories each and had them give their personal judgement on the defendant’s guilt.
The original femme fatale: Barbara Stanwyck with Fred MacMurray in the 1944 noir classic Double Indemnity, in which she plays a woman who convinces an insurance investigator to help her murder her husband
The results were surprising. Contrary to the hypothesis that the attractive defendant would ‘receive a more benevolent appraisal of criminality’ it was found that the ‘unattractive women defendants were attributed less criminal responsibility.’
‘We believe that our study represents the first naturalistic and longitudinal study that collects real emoticon use from text messages “in the wild”,’ said Philip Kortum, assistant professor of psychology at Rice and one of the study’s authors.
The researchers were less surprised to find, however, that the defendant who did not fit the stereotype of a battered woman was more likely to be regarded as guilty. She was perceived as having ‘more control over the situation, which in legal terms can translate as a higher degree of guilt’, the researchers said.
The study’s authors say their research has important implications for the way police officers are trained to deal with domestic violence.
‘These findings and interpretation have been systematically reported in the literature i.e., people who behave atypically and violate the expectations of others are perceived as having greater intentionality as their behaviour is judged be the result of their own free will,’
‘These findings and interpretation have been systematically reported in the literature i.e., people who behave atypically and violate the expectations of others are perceived as having greater intentionality as their
behaviour is judged be the result of their own free will.’
The findings were published in the European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context
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