Can your face sentence you to death?

A criminal poses for a mugshot. Stock photo by Getty Images

You may have heard the term “bitch face,” whereby a woman is judged to be unfriendly based solely on her expressionless mug.

It’s become a thing, Google it. While it may be just a silly Internet meme, there are other facial afflictions that are not so funny.

Enter the “untrustworthy face,” whereby people are deemed less trustworthy by virtue of their visage. While fairly innocuous for most of us, this can hold dire consequences for people facing serious criminal charges.

This is what a couple of University of Toronto psychology professors set out to prove. J.P. Wilson and Nicholas Rule recently had their research study, Facial Trustworthiness Predicts Extreme Criminal-Sentencing Outcomes, published in Psychological Science.

They asked an unknowing online audience to rate the trustworthiness of the faces of 371 male death-row inmates and the same number of photos of men serving life sentences for murder. They then compared the results.

“We found that people who looked less trustworthy were more likely to have been sentenced to death,” says Wilson, who used faces of prisoners in the Florida penal system, because the U.S. state has the highest number of death-row inmates and makes all their faces publicly available.

Only the faces of white and black males were used for the study. They divided the 742 images into seven sets of photos with an equal number of convicts serving both life and death sentences. The racial mix was also even. Online voters then rated the mugs on a scale of 1-to-8, from very untrustworthy to very trustworthy.

While there is no similar study in Canada, Wilson says this report and previous research has established a general rule that people with so-called untrustworthy faces incur negative judgments.

He says they chose people serving death sentences because they were “really interested in how far this might go and whether this would be extended to the most extreme punishment American society can levy on a person.”

Perhaps the most shocking result was when voters were asked to rate the pics of innocent people who had been exonerated after originally being sentenced to death. In that instance 37 photos, taken from the Innocence Project website, were used that included white, black and Hispanic males.

If there was no link, then all the innocent people should have scored more trustworthy ratings than their death-row counterparts. This was not the case.

“People with trustworthy faces may not actually be any more trustworthy than people who have untrustworthy faces,” stresses Wilson.

Last year the “pretty” mugshot of a violent Utah criminal became an Internet sensation that had women sending flowers and marriage proposals to the man in prison. Photoshopped images were even used to create a fake, but highly believable, Calvin Klein ad.

“We expect people to behave in a way that’s consistent with their behavior,” Wilson adds. “So if you see someone who has committed a terrible crime and they happen to be really attractive or really trustworthy looking it’s striking because it’s surprising. Pretty much everyone is susceptible to these biases.”

Wilson says that includes judges, although he has no specific data to back it up.

“To the extent that they’re fallible humans like the rest of us, they are susceptible to these biases,” he adds. “Of course we hope that they’re more aware of these biases than the average person might be and they would be able to use that information to act as a check on their decision making.”

So if people tell you that you have an “untrustworthy” face, you should try to avoid committing any serious crimes.
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