People make rapid judgments about one’s personality and behavior based on facial appearance. Recent research published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences found that facial masculinity (stereotypically masculine features) does not affect guilt judgments of a male suspect. However, disagreeable male faces were judged guilty more often than agreeable faces.
One example of how we integrate one’s facial features into judgment of their character is the halo effect, where attractive people are judged more positively than less attractive people. Another is the babyface effect, where people with childlike facial features are judged to have childlike personality traits.
These effects have implications for how people are treated within the criminal justice system. For example, attractive people are less likely to be found guilty of a crime and they receive more lenient sentences compared to unattractive people. One facial feature that is especially relevant to criminal justice outcomes is facial masculinity, as most people associate criminal activity with masculinity more so than with femininity.
“Exaggerated male-like facial characteristics could elicit greater suspicion of criminal guilt, directly if involvement in crime is seen as a more male-typical behavioral trait, but also indirectly as men with more masculine faces are seen as more dominant, less cooperative, and less honest,” wrote study author Kathryn D. Ford and colleagues.
The researchers wanted to expand on this work by using objective measures of facial masculinity using data on average male and female faces with computer graphics programs. “Men with face shapes close to the female average can be described as having a low level of morphological masculinity, while moving away from the female average towards (or beyond) the male average means a face exhibits a higher level of morphological masculinity,” the researchers noted when explaining the masculinity manipulation.
The researchers recruited 369 adult participants via social media sites in the United Kingdom. Participants read 12 brief press releases about 3 different crime types (assault, burglary, and rape). Each of the vignettes was presented with a randomly assigned composite face described to be the man who is charged with the crime.
The researchers created 12 male composite faces by averaging features of 3 men for each composite using a computer program. These faces were then manipulated to be either morphologically masculine or feminine (12 in each category).
These faces were then manipulated further for intention to cause harm. This was done using data from a previous study where these faces were rated for Agreeableness (one of the Big Five personality traits). The rationale for this is that those perceived to be high in Agreeableness are not likely to have facial expression that implies an intention to cause harm, as Agreeableness is associated with traits like cooperativeness and trustworthiness.
Thus, each of the 12 composite faces had 4 distinct versions: feminized-agreeable, feminized-disagreeable, masculinized-agreeable, and masculinized-disagreeable. Participants were asked after each press release whether they thought the man pictured was guilty of the crime and how confident they were in their decision.
Overall, the pictured man was judged guilty 58.1% of the time, which did not differ across crime type. Facial masculinity had no effect on guilty judgment rates; however, agreeableness did. The agreeable composite faces were judged guilty less often compared to the disagreeable faces for all three crime types. Participants were also more confident in their guilt judgments for the disagreeable faces compared to the agreeable ones. Confidence was not affected by facial masculinity.
The researchers note some limitations of this study. For example, only White face stimuli were used. Although there is some research indicating the masculinity effects are also absent for Black faces future research would benefit from assessing faces of different skin colors and taking culture of the participants into account.
“With evidence accumulating suggesting that judgements about people based on their facial appearance alone might influence judicial proceedings, in theory this could inspire modifications to court procedures to eliminate this source of bias (e.g. preventing a jury from seeing a defendant’s face),” the researchers noted. “However, the idea that judges and juries need to be able to examine the ‘demeanour’ of witnesses (and defendants) is central to the adversarial legal process, and this view has informed recent decisions about whether witnesses can wear face coverings during court proceedings.”
The study, “Justice is (not so) blind Effects of facial masculinity and agreeableness on perceptions of criminal guilt“, was authored by Kathryn D. Ford, Ian S. Penton-Voak, and Nicholas Pound.