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A new study from Columbia University researchers indicates that jurors’ perception of facial features in white defendants affects their sentencing decisions, much like the biases that affect every day social interactions and decision making. Through four experiments with 1,400 volunteers, “the researchers found that when real-world defendants have facial features that appear untrustworthy, they are more likely to be sentenced to death than life in prison.” Particular facial features, such as a heavy brow or down-turned lips, are known to cause others to view an individual as untrustworthy, despite these features providing no actual indication of one’s character. The study also found that participants “were more likely to recommend a ruling against hypothetical defendants with an untrustworthy facial appearance.” Using mugshots of 400 white Florida prisoners sentenced to either death or life in prison, researchers asked participants to decide who seemed trustworthy based solely on their faces. In measuring implicit social cognition, the research shows that participants harbored “unconscious bias that predicted who was ultimately sentenced to death.”

As part of this study, researchers also developed an intervention method with the intention of breaking participants’ reliance on facial stereotypes. Those who underwent the training unconsciously stopped relying on facial stereotypes in their sentencing decisions, “while participants in a control group who never received training remained strongly biased.” The training intervention employed by the research team, led by associate professor of psychology Jon Freeman, “works by making the implicit link in people’s minds between certain facial features and an untrustworthy reaction as no longer stable or reliable.” The training conditions participants to associate untrustworthy facial features with trustworthy behavior, ridding participants of the implicit connection between certain facial features and untrustworthiness. “These findings bolster prior work that facial stereotypes may have disastrous effects in the real world, but, more importantly, provide a potential inroad toward combating these sorts of biases,” Prof. Freeman said.

The judgment of another person’s trustworthiness or lack thereof is significantly influenced by both racial and gender biases. These biases exist alongside the facial-feature biases examined by researchers in this study. Prior research from professors at Stanford, UCLA, Yale, and Cornell focusing on the perception of stereotypically black facial characteristics indicates that these characteristics affect jurors’ decisions in death penalty sentencing. Using data from a 1998 study in Pennsylvania by Professor David Baldus, the group, led by Professor Jennifer Eberhardt, found that among Black defendants who killed white individuals, the more stereotypically Black a defendant’s facial features are perceived to be, the more likely that person is sentenced to death.

Columbia researchers conducted their study using images of solely white male faces in order to control for these race-based biases. According to Prof. Freeman, “by exposing a cognitive pathway toward eradicating facial stereotypes, future research must investigate whether this training could be broadly applied and how to ensure the bias reduction persists over time.”