"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New research finds convicts more likely to be sentenced to death if they look 'untrustworthy'

Newly published research suggests who lives and who dies is determined, to a significant degree, by gut-level instinct. It finds the decision to impose a death sentence is based in part on a completely irrational construct: Whether the convict has what is perceived as a trustworthy face.

This finding "suggests an alarming bias in the criminal justice system," conclude the study's co-authors, University of Toronto psychologists John Paul Wilson and Nicholas Rule. "Put simply, one's face may determine one's fate, at least in the judicial domain."

It has long been known that, consciously or not, people tend to size up strangers based on their facial characteristics.

But would this sort of mental shortcut come into play when making the weighty decision of sentencing a convicted murderer to either death or life in prison? To find out, Wilson and Rule collected photographs of 371 men on Florida's death row (nearly the entire population), and an equal number of inmates convicted of first-degree murder but sentenced to life imprisonment.

The 742 images were broken up into sets of around 100 each. Individual faces were then rated for trustworthiness (along with other factors including Afrocentricity and attractiveness) by 208 Americans recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

"We found that people who look less trustworthy were more often sentenced to death for first-degree murder," the researchers report in the journal Psychological Science. "Perceptions of trustworthiness from faces, which have high consensus but questionable validity with regard to actual behavior, affect criminal sentencing."

It's conceivable, of course, that our instinctive judgment of trustworthiness is sometimes accurate. So to take that issue out of the equation, Wilson and Rule collected a second set of facial images—this one from the Innocence Project. It featured 37 men who were wrongly convicted of, and served time in prison, for a serious crime before being exonerated. Twenty had been sentenced to life in prison; 17 received the death penalty.

Source: Pacific Standard, Tom Jacobs, July 14, 2015

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