Jurors biased in sentencing decisions by the attractiveness of the defendant

justiceisblindMore research presented at the recent British Psychological Society Annual Conference, this time on mock juror reactions to defendant attractiveness, conducted by by Dr Sandie Taylor and Megan Butcher from Bath Spa University.

The BPS Press Release (21 March) explains:

The study involved 96 participants, 48 white and 48 black, given a fictitious transcript of a ‘mugging’ with an attached photograph of the defendant. […] The transcript content remained constant but photos varied depending on condition participants were blindly allocated to. In some cases the defendants were attractive and in others not, in some they were white and in others not.

[…] “jurors” were less likely to find attractive defendants guilty and were more likely to find less attractive defendants guilty on the scale used. An interesting finding was that ethnicity had no effect on whether or not defendants were found guilty. However, unattractive black defendants who were found guilty were given harsher sentences than white ones irrespective of the ethnicity of the “juror.”

The finding that jurors are swayed by extralegal information, in particular, the attractiveness of a defendant, is not a new one, e.g.:

  • Efran, M.G. (1974). The effect of physical appearance on the judgment of guilt, interpersonal attraction, and severity of recommended punishment in a simulated jury task. Journal of Research in Personality 8(1): 45-54

… and there’s some evidence that the effect may in part be cross-cultural, e.g.:

There are many other studies of mock-juror decision making and defendant characteristics, including attractiveness; the relationship is somewhat complex but it is usually advantageous for a defendant to be good looking, e.g.:

A meta-analysis of experimental research on mock juror judgments was conducted […] to test the theory that jurors use characteristics that are correlated with criminal behavior as cues to infer guilt and to recommend punishment. In general, it was advantageous for defendants to be physically attractive, female, and of high SES, although these advantages were nil for some crimes. There were no overall effects of race on mock jurors’ judgments, but the effect of defendant race on punishment was strongly moderated by type of crime. […]

To my mind, by far the most compelling – and tragic – example of jurors being influenced by physical appearance is still Jennifer Eberhardt’s work on real sentencing decisions in capital cases and perceived stereotypicality of black men convicted of murder:

[…] male murderers with stereotypically ‘black-looking’ features are more than twice as likely to get the death sentence than lighter-skinned African American defendants found guilty of killing a white person.


Photo credit: RaeA, Creative Commons License

One thought on “Jurors biased in sentencing decisions by the attractiveness of the defendant”

Comments are closed.