May 11, 2010

Study uncovers why jurors reward the good-looking, penalize the unbeautiful

It's the last place you want to be judged on your looks. But in a court of law, it pays to be attractive, according to a new Cornell study that has found that unattractive defendants tend to get hit with longer, harsher sentences -- on average 22 months longer in prison.

The study also identified two kinds of jurors: Those who process information emotionally and give harsher verdicts to unattractive defendants and those who do it rationally and focus less on defendants' looks.

Psycho-legal literature has reported for decades that juries tend to show a bias in favor of good-looking defendants. Two Cornell researchers set out to determine why.

"Our hypothesis going in was that jurors inclined to process information in a more emotional/intuitive manner would be more prone to make reasoning errors when rendering verdicts and recommending sentences as opposed to rational processors. The results bore out our hypothesis on all measures," said lead author Justin Gunnell '05, J.D. '08, who began working on the study as a policy analysis and management major with co-author Stephen Ceci, Cornell's Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology.

The study, "When Emotionality Trumps Reason," to be published in an upcoming issue of Behavioral Sciences and the Law, may contribute to new refinements in jury selection.

Borrowing a theory from personality psychology, the researchers sought to identify emotional and rational thinkers. One processes information based on facts, analysis and logic. The other reasons emotionally and may consider such legally irrelevant factors as a defendant's appearance, race, gender and class and report that the less-attractive defendant appeared more like the "type of person" that would commit a crime.

American attorneys, depending on jurisdiction and the type of case, are permitted to screen out jurors for a number of reasons. In cases where the evidence strongly favors one side, a lawyer might want to choose rational jurors. But in a case with an emotional tug (e.g., a poor defendant with several children), a defense attorney might try to screen out highly rational jurors.

Study participants -- 169 Cornell psychology undergraduates -- took an online survey to determine the degree to which they processed information rationally or emotionally. They were then given a case study with a photograph of an actual defendant and his or her general profile. They read real jury instructions and listened to the cases' closing arguments.

While both groups convicted attractive defendants at similar rates and were less biased in the face of strong evidence or very serious offences, the jurors' reasoning style tended to play out "in cases where the evidence is ambiguous and the charged offense is somewhat minor," said Gunnell, who practices commercial litigation in New York City.

"Every person is capable of reasoning via either system and likely uses each system to some degree depending on context," Gunnell said. "The degree to which one system predominates the other is a factor that varies, depending on the individual's natural preference and style."

He said the findings are important in that "22 months may not seem like a lot to an outsider, but I guarantee that to the person serving the sentence it will seem like a lot."

"It is our obligation to look at areas of the judicial process that may be prone to weakness, at least under certain circumstances, or where improvements can be made. How jurors think, process and reason are an important step in understanding potential flaws in the American justice system, as crucial decisions ultimately rest in their hands," he said.