Study Finds ‘Unattractive Harshness Effect’ for Uglier Defendants

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A new study finds that less attractive defendants fare worse in criminal cases when the jurors have an “experiential” style of judging.

These jurors, who tend to process information based on emotions and personal experience, were 22 percent more likely to convict the less attractive defendants than jurors with a rational style of decision-making, the study’s lead author, Justin Gunnell, tells the ABA Journal. These experiential jurors also gave the looks-challenged defendants sentences that were on average 22 months longer than sentences given to more attractive people. The study called the phenomenon an “unattractive harshness effect,” the Cornell Daily Sun reports.

The emotional/intuitive jurors were also more likely to change their verdicts based on legally irrelevant information, such as whether the defendants collected welfare. They were also more likely to report that the less attractive defendant looked like the “type of person” who would commit such a crime.

The study was based on online responses by 169 Cornell psychology students. A personality test divided the students into two groups—those who process information rationally and those who process information emotionally. They were then given a case study with a photo of an actual defendant. Both groups convicted attractive defendants at similar rates, but differed when the defendants were less attractive.

Gunnell is a commercial litigator in New York City and a graduate of Cornell Law School. He began the study as an undergraduate, and it was his senior thesis, he told the Daily Sun.

Gunnell doesn’t think the results are cause for alarm, but he believes they do call for caution. Not much attention has been given to the interaction of personality factors and juror error or bias, he says, and he thinks the study may spur more research on the issue in the future.

James Reams, president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, downplayed the study in an interview with the National Law Journal. “This study may say more about the kids at that college than anything else,” he said.

The study, “When Emotionality Trumps Reason,” will be published in an upcoming issue of Behavioral Sciences & the Law.

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