In the one place in society where brute facts and figures are supposed to trump all else, appearance may matter more than we think.
According to a recent study by Justin J. Gunnell ’05 law ’08 and Prof. Stephen J. Ceci, human ecology and the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology, more attractive defendants in court are less likely to be found guilty than less attractive ones. If there are damages, then more attractive people tend to receive higher rewards and in criminal cases, better-looking defendants receive lower sentences.
This phenomenon has been proven by more than 30 studies conducted over the past 60 to 70 years, according to Gunnell.
“We [already] knew about this phenomenon, so our question was: is there a specific type of person who’s more likely to do this?” Gunnell said.
In their report –– which will be published in the academic journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law and is titled “When Emotionality Trumps Reason” –– Gunnell and Ceci studied how individual information processing styles affect juror decisions.
“Information processing can proceed through two pathways, a rational one and an experiential one. The former is characterized by an emphasis on analysis, fact and logical argument, whereas the latter is characterized by emotional and personal experience,” the study said.
“Our hypothesis was that if we identify the two groups, then the experiential people are more likely to focus on extralegal factors, which shouldn’t have any bearing on the legal process,” Gunnell said. “Attractiveness was the variable we used.”
Every participant was given a survey to determine the degree to which they processed information in a rational or experiential manner. They were then given a case study, where they were exposed to four photographs of the defendant and his or her general profile. Participants were later asked to listen to the cases’ closing arguments.
Afterward, the participants were asked whether they would find the defendant guilty and, if so, what sentence they would recommend.
The study confirmed what it referred to as an “unattractive harshness effect.” In terms of sentencing, jurors that processed information in more of an “experiential” manner gave an average of 22 months more jailtime for those that they deemed unattractive. Those same jurors found less good-looking defendants guilty 22 percent more of the time than good-looking ones.
“The interesting thing was the degree of influence of one system [of thought processing] over the other,” Gunnell said. “One can overtake the other. For example, you can’t approach a math problem emotionally. It’s context dependent.”
Gunnell began the study in 2005 as an undergraduate on the Cornell in Washington program. It was done completely online and all of the participants were fellow undergraduates, the majority of whom were psychology majors.
“I’ve been working on it for a long time since the statistics were pretty complex,” Gunnell said. “It was actually my senior thesis.”