I just finished reading a great article by Sean Kernan about unfair advantages that people take for granted. In it, he mentions that one of the advantages is being born beautiful. That reminded me of an experiment in the UK many years ago that “proved” this point.
At the time, there was a debate about whether good-looking defendants in criminal cases were found not guilty more often than no-so-good-looking defendants. If we’re charged with a crime, we all expect a fair trial based on the evidence. We wouldn’t want the outcome to be judged on our looks.
There was only one way to find out the answer to this question, and that was to put it to the test. A fictitious court case was to be shown on prime-time TV. The viewers would decide if the defendant was guilty or innocent. Simple, yet effective.
Before the case was shown, viewers were told to ignore the looks of the defendants. After all, they were just actors. All the viewers needed to do was listen to the evidence from both the prosecution and defense lawyers, and then vote guilty or innocent. Sounds simple, right?
This is where a cunning twist came into play. Viewers in different parts of the country saw the same evidence presented, but different defendants were shown.
One defendant was a typically good-looking man, while the other defendant had what many would describe as criminal looks. Have you noticed that in films and TV series, the heroes are usually well-dressed, clean-shaven, and good-looking? In contrast, the bad guys are usually badly dressed, unshaved and look pretty mean.
An article in Business Insider states that:
The above would suggest that the more attractive defendant would stand a better chance of being found not guilty.
When the program was aired, half the country saw the good-looking guy as the defendant, while the other half saw the no-so-good-looking guy.
The evidence presented was identical in each case.
I’m sure you’ve already guessed the outcome. Despite being told to only focus on the evidence and not on the way the defendants looked, a much larger proportion found the good-looking guy not guilty.
Is this definitive proof of a bias in the legal system?
I decided to dig a little deeper.
I came across an excellent article about Physical Attractiveness Bias in the Legal System. The author, Rod Hollier “predicted a person’s physical attractiveness would only have minor advantages”. He was wrong.
He came to the conclusion that:
“Attractiveness had little to no effect on a judge’s verdict of guilt. Attractive and unattractive criminals were convicted equally.”
So, maybe the TV program wasn’t a true reflection of reality.
But there’s a twist to the story.
The author also discovered that:
“Physical Attractiveness had a significant influence on judges’ sentencing. The more unattractive the criminal, the higher the sentence. Or conversely, the more attractive the criminal, the lower the sentence. The results of three studies show a minimum increase of 119.25% and a maximum increase of 304.88%.”
That is pretty shocking.
The author cited The Pennsylvanian Study. This covered 67 defendants and 15 judges. The defendants were a mixture of black, Hispanic, and white.
The criminals of high attractiveness were sentenced to an average of 1.87 years in jail. The criminals of low attractiveness were sentenced to 4.1 years in jail
There are certainly advantages to being attractive and disadvantages to being unattractive.