Study: In Homicide Defense, When the Beautiful Are the Damned


Women charged with murder who plead self-defense are more likely to be perceived as guilty if they have straight blonde hair and "a slender and elegant appearance."

Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in Dr. No, 1962  [Eon Productions]

PROBLEM: A widely-studied stereotype in social psychology is that beauty deflects criminal responsibility. As this study's authors put it, "Attractive people are often perceived as having positive personality features and attributes in consonance with the implicit theory that 'beauty is goodness.'"

Ideally legal processes are without bias, but nothing is, and looking at how our prejudices shape behaviors and outcomes should theoretically help us minimize them. Also just generally we should do more research on beautiful people. What makes them tick? Do they have fears? If you spill your drink on them, do droplets of water remain on their skin in little beads indefinitely?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers in Spain at the University of Grenada created fictitious scenarios in which a woman was accused of killing her gender-neutral "intimate partner." In all cases the woman's story was that she'd been the victim of domestic violence for a long time and had finally killed the person out of self-defense. The only thing different between the narratives was the description of the accused woman.

In one story she was depicted as what they considered beautiful:

María is an attractive woman with thick lips; smooth, harmonious facial features; straight blonde hair; and a slender and elegant appearance.

And in the other she was not:

María is an unattractive woman with thin lips; stern and jarring facial features; dark, bundled hair; and is neither slender nor elegant in appearance.

Jarring facial features! In any case. The other variable, which they evaluated separately from María's physical beauty, was her character's degree of likeness to "the prototype of a battered woman." So, in some stories:

María is a 36-year old housewife with two children (six and three years old) who has been married for 10 years. María wears sunglasses that hide her face, has poor personal appearance and dress, and is timid in answering the judge or lawyers' questions.

And in the others, she was what they deemed not the prototype of a battered woman:

María is a financial consultant of a leading company; she has no children, and has been married for ten years. María is a well-dressed fashion-conscious woman, calm and resolute in her interactions with the judge and lawyers.

The researchers then had 169 police officers from the Spanish State Security Forces (153 men and 16 women) read one version of the story and pass judgment.

RESULTS: Contrary to the pervasive stereotypes that attractive defendants would "receive a more benevolent appraisal of criminality," in this scenario the "unattractive women defendants were attributed less criminal responsibility."

Separately, when Maria was described as unlike the "prototypical battered woman," she was perceived has having "more control over the situation, which in legal terms can translate as a higher degree of guilt."

IMPLICATION: Variables like physical attractiveness and stereotypical perceptions of those involved in domestic violence can bias the legal process, as they do so many aspects life. This is apparently among the minority of circumstances in which beauty hinders criminal defense, with the implication being that "the attractiveness of a battered woman accused of murdering her husband is inconsistent with the prototype of a battered woman."

To be clear, victims can't be reliably identified by these or any other physical characteristics or descriptors, and we should in no way make these sorts of assumptions. People will argue that defining and identifying behaviors and features of those more likely [not] to commit certain crimes informs justice, but that's extremely slippery. Identifying our prejudices, though, as this study does, can make us better at getting past them.

Also, apparently the objective definition of physical beauty does not include bundled hair or stern features, which I thought I liked.

SOURCE: The full study, "Is Miss Sympathy a Credible Defendant Alleging Intimate Partner Violence in a Trial For Murder?" was published yesterday in the European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.


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