This is Scientific American's 60-second Science, I'm Christopher Intagliata.
Eight years ago, the jury in the trial of Casey Anthony announced their verdict. "As to the charge of first-degree murder, verdict as to count one, we the jury find the defendant not guilty."
Anthony had been charged with murdering her two-year-old daughter. But like the murder charge, the jury's decision for additional charges of aggravated child abuse and aggravated manslaughter were again "not guilty."
"That created this huge outcry." Christopher Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at Stetson University in central Florida, not far from where the trial occurred. "There was kind of like this narrative that she got preferential treatment, maybe not on purpose, but that the jury was more sympathetic to her because she was this pretty young female and that kind of conflicted with people's impression of who a murderer is."
Mock trial studies have suggested that attractive people have an edge in the criminal justice system. So Ferguson and his colleagues looked into that stereotype using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the largest long-term study of people who began participating in the study as teens.
The interviewers asked the youths some multitude of questions—and also rated the respondents' degree of attractiveness, a measure that's been used to examine links to health and wealth.
In this case, Ferguson and his team looked at a subset of nearly 8,800 respondents and examined the correlation between attractiveness and arrest, conviction and sentencing. After controlling for things like gender, race and socioeconomic status, they found that attractiveness did have a protective effect—but only for females.
"Girls or women who are more attractive were less likely to be arrested if they'd committed a crime and less likely to be convicted if they were arrested for that crime. However, it did not have any impact on their sentencing. So once they were convicted, attractiveness conveyed no further benefits." The results are in the journal Psychiatry, Psychology and Law.
It's just a correlation, of course, and there are limitations. The attractiveness ratings were an average of four different interviewers' assessments, made over a dozen years. But beauty, as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder. And the effects weren't huge. Still, Ferguson says, "being sort of alert to our stereotypes and prejudices sometimes can help us combat them a little bit" — and perhaps get us closer to the ideal that justice should be blind.
Thanks for listening for Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Christopher Intagliata.