Can we reduce facial biases? Persistent effects of facial trustworthiness on sentencing decisions



Trait impressions from faces influence many consequential decisions even in situations in which decisions should not be based on a person's appearance. Here, we test (a) whether people rely on trait impressions when making legal sentencing decisions and (b) whether two types of interventions—educating decision-makers and changing the accessibility of facial information—reduce the influence of facial stereotypes. We first introduced a novel legal decision-making paradigm. Results of a pretest (n = 320) showed that defendants with an untrustworthy (vs. trustworthy) facial appearance were found guilty more often. We then tested the effectiveness of different interventions in reducing the influence of facial stereotypes. Educating participants about the biasing effects of facial stereotypes reduced explicit beliefs that personality is reflected in facial features, but did not reduce the influence of facial stereotypes on verdicts (Study 1, n = 979). In Study 2 (n = 975), we presented information sequentially to disrupt the intuitive accessibility of trait impressions. Participants indicated an initial verdict based on case-relevant information and a final verdict based on all information (including facial photographs). The majority of initial sentences were not revised and therefore unbiased. However, most revised sentences were in line with facial stereotypes (e.g., a guilty verdict for an untrustworthy-looking defendant). On average, this actually increased facial bias in verdicts. Together, our findings highlight the persistent influence of trait impressions from faces on legal sentencing decisions.
Date made available2019
Date of data production2019

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