Is justice blind?

Statues of Lady Justice stand outside court buildings all around the world. Scales and sword in hand, she is supposed to represent how justice involves the weighing of opposing cases and meting out punishment to the guilty.

Often lady justice is depicted blindfolded, to emphasise the need for justice to be delivered impartially, instead of on the basis of bias or prejudice. But what the blindfold also suggests is that objectivity can’t be expected as a matter of course. Humans are naturally biased, and will take into account irrelevant information unless prevented.

However, judges, juries and magistrates are not blindfolded. They can see the defendants standing in the dock, and this means that their judgements can be affected by the defendant’s appearance.

Angela Ahola and colleagues from Stockholm University recently carried out a study to determine how these biases operate. They used a mock trial design. That means that each of their 323 participants, drawn from amongst lawyers, judges, police officers, and jurors, were shown a series of facial photographs of supposed defendants, each paired with an account of the crime they were suspected of committing. The people in the photos differed in attractiveness. The participants were asked to say how guilty, how culpable, how ruthless and mentally ill each defendant was. They were also asked to sentence the defendant by indicating a suitable prison term.

Ahola found that, regardless of the severity of the crime, the participants tended to evaluate defendants more harshly if they were of the same sex. Men rated men less favourably, and the same was true of women rating women. Ahola suggests that this might be because we find it easier to relate to people of our own sex, and we find it more shocking when someone with whom we can relate commits a crime.

There was also a general bias against men, with male defendants tending to be judged more harshly than women, which the authors called the ‘male penalty effect’. Men may be seen as more culpable for their actions, whereas, for right or wrong, women are perceived to be less capable of intentionally committing crimes.

Ahola’s final finding was that the male penalty effect was enhanced when women judged men who were attractive. In other words, if a defendant was both male and attractive, his guiltiness and prison sentence were higher if he was judged by a woman. This could be because attractive men are thought to be more in control of their life, and have fewer reasons for committing crimes. It could also be because women have worse experiences with attractive men in their everyday lives, and may therefore unconsciously feel that attractive men are more antisocial.

At first glance, achieving truly blind justice might appear easy, but studies like this show that when it comes to impartiality, there’s more to justice than meets the eye.

Ahola, A. S., Hellström, Å., & Christianson, S. Å. (2010). Is justice really blind? Effects of crime descriptions, defendant gender and appearance, and legal practitioner gender on sentences and defendant evaluations in a mock trial. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 17(2), 304–324. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the June 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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