The findings made by a team of researchers from the University of Grenada, Spain, contradict the generally held stereotype that beauty deflects criminal responsibility.
They found that in the case of a woman claiming self defence in the killing of an abusive husband, police officers were more likely to regard as innocent defendants who were described as unattractive.
The findings of the study also showed that women perceived as more independent and in charge of their lives were also more likely to be seen as guilty of murder.
Legal processes are ideally conducted without bias, but in reality biases influence all human judgements and looking at how these prejudices shape behaviour should help to minimise their effect.
“Attractive people are often perceived as having positive personality features and attributes in consonance with the implicit theory that ‘beauty is goodness’,” the Daily Mail quoted the study’s authors as saying.
This ‘halo effect’ has also been previously shown to influence perception of other traits, with attractive people seen as ‘more sociable, friendly, warm, competent and intelligent than unattractive individuals.’
To test this effect in the scenario of domestic violence, the Grenada team created fictitious scenarios in which a woman was accused of stabbing her husband to death as he lay in bed.
In each case, the woman’s story was that she had been the victim of years of domestic violence and had finally killed her husband out of self defence. The only difference between narratives was the defendant’s description.
In one story she was described with features typically regarded as beautiful – “Maria is an attractive woman with thick lips; smooth, harmonious facial features; straight blonde hair; and a slender and elegant appearance.”
In the other story she was described as “unattractive” – “Maria is an unattractive woman with thin lips, stern and jarring facial features, dark bundled hair, and is neither slender nor elegant in appearance.”
The other variable, which the researchers evaluated separately from the defendant’s physical attractiveness, was her likeness to the “prototype of a battered woman.”
In some of the stories – “Maria is a 36-year old housewife with two children (six and three years old) who has been married for 10 years. Maria wears sunglasses that hide her face, has poor personal appearance and dress, and is timid in answering the judge or lawyer’ questions.”
While in the others – “Maria is a financial consultant of a leading company; she has no children, and has been married for ten years. Maria is a well-dressed fashion-conscious woman, calm and resolute in her interactions with the judge and lawyers.”
The researchers then showed 169 police officers from the Spanish national and local police forces one of the stories each and had them give their personal judgement on the defendant''s guilt.
The results were surprising. Contrary to the hypothesis that the attractive defendant would ‘receive a more benevolent appraisal of criminality’ it was found that the ‘unattractive women defendants were attributed less criminal responsibility.’
However, the researchers were less surprised to find that the defendant who did not fit the stereotype of a battered woman was more likely to be regarded as guilty. She was perceived as having “more control over the situation, which in legal terms can translate as a higher degree of guilt”.
The study has been published in the European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context.