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Unconscious Bias: Facial Features Can Influence Life-or-Death Decisions in Verdicts

by Jo Ellen Nott

Imagine a courtroom where a defendant’s fate is being decided. But instead of evidence, jurors rely on an unconscious judgment based on downturned lips or a heavy brow. Scientists at Columbia University have proven that people unfairly believe that those specific facial features mark a person who cannot be trusted.

This unfair judgement, exposed in a new study by Columbia researchers led by Professor Jon Freeman, reveals the strong but subtle power of facial bias in shaping high-stakes verdicts like capital punishment. Forensic magazine summarized the findings of Freeman’s research in a December 18, 2023, article that was based on a scholarly paper published in the academic journal Psychological Sciences.

Freeman’s group uncovered how seemingly insignificant facial features such as the resting position of a person’s lips or the thickness of eyebrows can tip the scales of justice. They showed the mugshots of 400 Florida murder prisoners to 1,400 volunteers and discovered that defendants with downturned lips and bushy eyebrows were more likely to be considered untrustworthy and to receive a death sentence.

Even more unsettling is that although volunteers in the study claimed to have no bias, they showed prejudice through subtle tests. Forensic reported that “using a test known as a sequential priming paradigm, the researchers could show that these participants did, in fact, harbor unconscious biases that predicted who was ultimately sentenced to death.” This proves that unconscious processes are at play even when a person believes he or she is not prejudiced.

Armed with this knowledge of unconscious prejudice, Freeman’s team developed a training program that targets unconscious associations. Unlike traditional methods that rely on conscious awareness, this training tackles the root cause: the automatic link between certain features and negative judgments. The training pairs “untrustworthy” faces with positive behaviors and breaks the harmful connection. The results were promising—trained participants overcame facial bias, unlike a control group. The effect went beyond conscious decisions, impacting unconscious reactions as well.

A limitation of Freeman’s research, however, was that the study focused solely on white male faces in an effort eliminate racial and gender bias. Future research will explore the program’s effectiveness with different types of faces to ensure its reliability in broader applications. Additionally, long-term studies are necessary to see if the intervention has a lasting impact in reducing or eliminating facial feature bias.

For now, the practical takeaway from the research is be mindful of the corners of your mouth and the bushiness of your eyebrows when presumed trustworthiness is critical.   


Source: Forensic

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