NEW YORK — A concerning new study is giving the harsh phrase, “I hate your face” new meaning. Jurors are more inclined to recommend the death penalty when they dislike the defendant’s appearance.
Prior studies have shown that certain facial features, like downturned lips and a heavy brow, can make someone seem untrustworthy. These features, though unrelated to a person’s actual character, significantly influence both everyday social interactions and critical decisions, such as electing political leaders or determining a jury’s sentencing recommendation.
A team from Columbia University corroborated these previous findings, revealing defendants with “untrustworthy” facial features are more likely to receive a death sentence than life imprisonment. Moreover, mock jurors in experiments tended to find defendants guilty more often based on an “untrustworthy facial appearance.”
However, Columbia researchers discovered a method to mitigate these biases, potentially preventing future injustices. In their experiment, 1,400 volunteers underwent a training intervention. Results show this intervention effectively reduced reliance on facial feature stereotypes, addressing biases both consciously and unconsciously — a crucial aspect, given that unconscious biases can significantly influence behavior.
Participants initially assessed the trustworthiness of mugshots from 400 Florida inmates, all convicted murderers. Inmates deemed “less trustworthy” based on facial features were more likely to have been sentenced to death, even when participants showed no explicit bias against certain facial features.
The intervention involved training participants to dissociate specific facial features from untrustworthy reactions. This was achieved through a computer task that prompted participants to link “untrustworthy” facial features with trustworthy behaviors. This approach aimed to destabilize and render unreliable the implicit association between appearance and trustworthiness.
A control group that did not receive the training continued to exhibit strong appearance-based biases, highlighting the effectiveness of the intervention.
“These findings bolster prior work that facial stereotypes may have disastrous effects in the real world, but, more importantly, provide a potential inroad toward combating these sorts of biases,” says lead author Jon Freeman, an associate professor of psychology, in a media release.
“By exposing a cognitive pathway toward eradicating facial stereotypes, future research must investigate whether this training could be broadly applied and how to ensure the bias reduction persists over time.”
“If there are consequential judgments that are biased by facial stereotypes, our findings suggest that they have the potential to be flexibly remapped and dismantled,” the research team concludes.
The team notes that racial and gender-based biases can also strongly affect how trustworthy or untrustworthy people judge someone to be. Therefore, Columbia’s researchers decided to conduct their studies solely with White male faces, in order to provide a controlled response. However, with the effects now established, the team is looking to conduct a follow-up experiment where they will test the intervention with faces diverse in race and gender.
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.
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South West News Service writer Imogen Howse contributed to this report.