Looks could kill
----Criminals with untrustworthy faces get harsher sentences
PEOPLE decide quickly how trustworthy a stranger is, based on what his face looks like. And experiments show that, regarding any particular individual, they generally come to the same conclusion. There really are, it seems, trustworthy and untrustworthy faces—though, surprisingly, there is little consensus among researchers as to whether someone whose face is deemed devious really is more likely to betray a trust. The perceivedly untrustworthy do, however, suffer for their phizogs. And a study published in this month's Psychological Science suggests that in extreme cases—in America at least—this suffering may be fatal.
John Wilson and Nicholas Rule, psychologists at the University of Toronto, looked at convicted murderers in the American state of Florida, which retains the death penalty. They selected 371 prisoners on death row and a further 371 who were serving life sentences. To avoid confounding variables, all those chosen were male and were either black or white (no Asians or other ethnic groups). Each sample included 226 white convicts and 145 black ones. A group of 208 volunteers whom Dr Wilson and Dr Rule had recruited were then invited to rate photographs of each convict’s face for trustworthiness, on a scale of one to eight, where one was “not at all trustworthy” and eight was “very trustworthy”.
The results of all this work revealed that the faces of prisoners who were on death row had an average trustworthiness of 2.76 and that those serving life sentences averaged 2.87. Not a huge difference, but one that was statistically significant (it, or something larger, would have happened by chance less often than one time in 100). That suggests untrustworthy-looking defendants are more likely to face a lethal injection, if convicted, than trustworthy-looking ones.
To show that this was not a result of people with untrustworthy faces actually committing more heinous (and therefore death-penalty-worthy) murders, Dr Wilson and Dr Rule also looked at the faces of those who had been convicted of murder, sentenced and then acquitted on appeal, usually on the basis of DNA evidence. These innocents, too, had more often been sentenced to death in their original trials if their faces were rated untrustworthy. In Floridian courts, at least, it seems that your face really is your fortune.