Australian legal researcher finds physical attractiveness affects sentencing

“You wonder if I was in that situation, how much would I be sentenced?”

That’s one of many things Rodney Hollier considered when he began researching attractiveness bias – or the tendency to perceive conventionally attractive people as more intelligent, sociable, and more innocent than unattractive people.

People who are considered to be conventionally attractive are favoured in all aspects of life compared to unattractive people.

“A person is either advantaged or disadvantaged based upon the way that they look,” Mr Hollier says.

While there has been plenty of research done on the topic across all areas, one area that is not always considered is how it affects the law, especially in sentencing.

Mr Hollier, a lawyer and creator of The Law Project, wrote an article titled ‘Physical attractiveness bias in the legal system’ which went viral, shedding light on an issue that not many had considered before, in a legal context.

He says attraction bias comes into play more so during the sentencing portion of criminal cases.

“Generally, when a person is charged, there are two components to it – there’s the question of whether they did or did not commit what they’ve been charged with, and the second component is that if they’re found guilty how much they should be punished,” he says.

Through his research, Mr Hollier discovered that judges were influenced the most by attraction bias in sentencing.

Unattractive people received higher sentences while attractive people received lower ones

A study in the US state of Pennsylvania that he found while researching inspired him to write his blog post.

“There were around five police officers who attended around 2000 cases and they just rated all the criminals on a scale and collated their rating to come up with an average,” he says.

“[It found] that unattractive people were punished harshly, and the more attractive people were punished less.”

The study conducted by Downs and Lyons had police officers rate the criminals on a scale of one to five, based on their appearances, and compared them to how serious the misdemeanour they committed was.

The results show “unattractive” defendants were sentenced more harshly than the “attractive” defendants for moderate misdemeanours, with a difference of more than 300 percent.

He says most of the time, attraction bias comes down to people using their gut feeling, rather than focusing purely on the facts of the case.

“It seems to have a bigger effect when people tend to use their gut feeling; they have a hunch about something, or they use their gut to form an impression,” he says.

While there has been extensive research on this in the US and other countries, there has been little to no research done in Australia on the topic.

“That is a limitation in Australian courts that it may not apply – my thinking is it probably would, even though there are no studies on Australian courts, there is a lot of research in a general sense on this topic, not just in [a] legal [context] but in all types of areas,” he says.

Unfortunately, as attraction bias is more of a subconscious thought process there’s not much that can be done to prevent its influence.

“There haven’t been many studies that have managed to eliminate it – the only thing that has helped is to look back to the evidence to reduce that ‘using your gut feeling’ hunch,” he says.

You wonder if I was in that situation, how much would I be sentenced?

— Rodney Hollier, lawyer and legal researcher

Some common suggestions to combat the prevalence of attraction bias in the courtroom include potentially keeping the judge and the defendant separate during sentencing, but Mr Hollier points out these methods may hinder the way the court case proceeds.

“I think they should look into it to find a solution before going into it, that isn’t disruptive,” he says.

While there may not be a clear cut solution to how judges and others alike can let the attractiveness bias affect decision making, one thing we can do to reduce its effects is to not let our gut reactions influence the facts of the case.

“When I started looking into this subject, I predicted a person’s physical attractiveness would only have minor advantages – I was wrong,” Mr Hollier says in his article.

“I believe that the attractiveness bias is rarely conscious…I do not think people are consciously disfavouring unattractive people.”