Counter Intuitive

The beautiful ARE the damned: Attractive women more likely to be seen as guilty of murdering their husbands, study shows

  • 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

Femme fatale: Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken in LA Confidential. A study has shown attractive women are more likely to be seen as guilty of murder
Femme fatale: Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken in LA  Confidential. A study has shown attractive women are more likely to be seen as  guilty of murder

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 husbandThe 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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