Gut instinct: We can identify criminals on sight, study finds

Apr 08, 2011 By George Lowery

(PhysOrg.com) -- A woman walking her dog encounters a man. She has an instant, visceral reaction to him and screams. The next day, she sees his picture in the newspaper; he has been charged with rape.

This anecdote prompted three Cornell researchers to reopen a "long and sordid" history of research and debate about whether we can determine who is a criminal by looking at his face.

Their finding: We can.

"In two experiments, subjects were able to distinguish between criminals and noncriminals by rating each photo we presented to them," said human development doctoral student Jeffrey Valla '12, first author of the study, published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural (Vol. 5:1), with human development professors Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams.

The researchers gathered head shots of Caucasian males, ages 20 to 29, put them all against a white background and controlled for attractiveness and display of facial emotion. Half were photos of convicts. The criminals were on their first conviction, had short hair and little to no facial hair. About half the criminals had been convicted of violent crimes (forcible rapes, murder, assault) and half for nonviolent crimes (forgery, theft, arson and drug dealing).

On a scale of one to seven, study participants rated how likely each man was to have committed a crime. If they thought a crime had been committed, they were asked to pick violent or nonviolent crimes and to specify which crime had taken place.

"We found a small but reliable effect," Valla said. "Subjects rated the criminal photos as significantly more likely to have committed a crime than noncriminals."

But the participants could not distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders, and women subjects had more trouble correctly identifying rapists than men.

"We speculate that part of the reason why rapists might be successful is that they may purposefully make themselves appear to be nonthreatening to gain access to their victims," Valla said.

The researchers also found that after the experiment, subjects who said they "knew" which photos were police mug shots were worse at picking criminals than those who said they didn't know the photos' origin.

"We wanted to explore this without any preconceptions whether people can distinguish criminals from noncriminals, if there is a difference in appearance between criminals and noncriminals, and whether it's inherent or whether it's gained through experience -- the so-called Dorian Gray effect, in which you come to wear your experiences on your face," Valla said. "I'm not saying that's what people are picking out in the criminal photos, but it's one possibility."

Valla said some people react with aversion when he describes the experiments, in part because it smacks of data abused by adherents of such discredited theories as Social Darwinism, eugenics, phrenology and the "born criminal" -- a "subhuman species" with drooping eyes, large ears, protruding jaw and flat nose -- which led to the sterilization of .

Should we trust our intuition about people?

"If you're walking down the street and see someone who looks sinister, and you don't have to engage with him, are you going to give him the benefit of the doubt? Ideally, yes. But our study participants were more likely to err on the side of thinking someone was a criminal than not. Perhaps our reptilian brain is a little less ready to take such a risk," he said.

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User comments : 13

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dogbert
5 / 5 (4) Apr 08, 2011
This shouldn't really come as a surprise. I suspect all of us make such judgments frequently and we do so for a reason.

Ask any manager how he/she selects employees and, if he/she is honest, the answer will be that a lot depends on the feeling the manager gets when interviewing the candidate.

People choose friends and lovers largely based on feelings, particularly first impressions.
Yellowdart
1 / 5 (1) Apr 08, 2011
Dr. Lightman, anyone? :)

People can be very good at reading body language, facial expressions, and typically those who have just committed a crime or are about to, show those signs easily. Even the average person grasps that almost subconsciously, and will walk on the other side of the road so to speak to avoid.
wealthychef
4.5 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2011
The explanations of cause and effect might be backwards as well. It could be that people who look like criminals are more likely to become criminals because it is what people expect of them. Similarly, rapists that do not appear threatening to women would be more successful, leading to a selection bias in rapists appearing less threatening, not because as rapists they learn to appear less threatening, but because as people who appear less threatening, they are more likely to succeed at being rapists.
xznofile
not rated yet Apr 08, 2011
social cueing much?
that_guy
1.6 / 5 (5) Apr 08, 2011
Occam's razor...There was only a slight correlation. And it should be obvious - many criminals have different priorities, and you can see it in the way they hold themselves, groom themselves, etc. Probably even more prevalent is how they are affected by spending time in jail.

To get a true bead on the concept, they should ask people to rate the faces of ten men. Then the rater will be forcibly raped, beat up, and stolen from, by five of the men. This will help us determine if the effect is from prison time, or if you can truly rate a criminal before the crime.
nada
2.7 / 5 (3) Apr 08, 2011
Lie detector tests have been shown to only be 60% accurate and they actually take measurements. But yet, "just looking" at someone is suppose to be more accurate? Break out the tarot cards.
flicktheswitch
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 08, 2011
At 38 I've found that I am an excellent reader of people, especially faces. One of my favorite games is pulling up a random selection of images of faces from the net and picking the often hidden emotional shadings people were feeling when each was taken. It's never a calculation, you just know.

Although the jury is still out on the final answer to this for me, I'd say the front runners would have to be a combination of the Dorian Gray effect and social cueing.

I grew up with one eye out of alignment and I felt the effects of social cueing every day. In regards the Dorian Gray effect, even a child can see the effects on a person's face and body language as a result of trauma, for example. Success-arrogance also marks faces permanently after some time, as does repeated dishonesty.

If you can't see this naturally you won't believe me... nonetheless it's there for some people, and, according to the above, apparently measurable in an evidential fashion as well.
RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (2) Apr 08, 2011
The mug shot is taken in a particularly stressful environment and it may be this alone that the people are able to discriminate, not the intrinsic criminality.

Would they do as well if the photos of criminals were taken in non-stressful conditions? I would assume that those people subsequently found not guilty would also be picked as criminals by their mug shots or even by shots taken after they were charged but before they were cleared.

Note that 'successful rapists' are the ones that don't get caught. Failures end up in prison...
jrsm
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 09, 2011
If they did the same with military or police officers and put them in a similar lineup, I bet you would get the same results; the same raters would rate them as criminals too. It may well be that images who live and work in an institutional environment take on the similar traits in appearance.
Gpnum
5 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2011
If a researcher aware about who was felon or not was present in the room when students were presented the picture, student could have gotten clue from the researcher involuntary facial expression.

The full study is available on the net, and it mention nothing about that well know bias management. The protocol don't mention if students where alone when presented picture, just that it was a powerpoint slideshow.
Silver_the_Fox
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
At 38 I've found that I am an excellent reader of people, especially faces. One of my favorite games is pulling up a random selection of images of faces from the net and picking the often hidden emotional shadings people were feeling when each was taken. It's never a calculation, you just know.

I grew up with one eye out of alignment and I felt the effects of social cueing every day. In regards the Dorian Gray effect, even a child can see the effects on a person's face and body language as a result of trauma, for example. Success-arrogance also marks faces permanently after some time, as does repeated dishonesty.


So you are saying that you can tell whether someone is a liar or an honost person simply by looking at them? Even if I were to say... skew the results?

Not likely.

I myself am an empath, or so I think... But even I have my doubts as to your claim. Repeated dishonesty is not visible via the face or look of a person, but by their speach patterns. Look it up.
beelize54
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
Unfortunately, this study appears crippled for me in remarkably stupid way: all criminals have eyes dazzled, because their photos are actually mug shots taken with frontal source of light, which intentionally doesn't cast shadows. So, if you can see the white spot instead of dark pupil, you can be sure, you've a criminal before your eyes.
Silver_the_Fox
not rated yet Apr 25, 2011
Well, at least someone looked something up, nice input beelize. Unfortunately once again, it is also slightly off, while mugshots do indeed cast a "white spot" to appear over our irises, the article explained that it made sure the photos were equal in every respect. that means the eyes, the shadings, the expressions, and so on and so forth.