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Simple Jury Persuasion: Using the ‘Nerd Defense’

Wednesday, March 9, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

The mainstream media story publicizing a three year old study on the ‘nerd defense’ caused a flurry of blog posting on the topic. We wanted to go to the source and see just what was said as (occasionally, sometimes, it could happen) research findings are distorted and misinterpreted in the mainstream media. So we just wanted to see.

Not surprisingly, the actual research is much more nuanced and more interesting than the internet interpretation. Researchers drew on years of ‘what is beautiful is good’ and research [as well as common wisdom] saying that those wearing glasses are seen as less attractive than those who are not wearing glasses.  From that review of the research, they noted that no one had looked at whether eyeglasses were instrumental in making African Americans look less attractive. So they designed a violent crime scenario [a mugging and face slashing from a male perpetrator to a female victim] to test their hypotheses.  Sheesh—this isn’t exactly a beauty contest!

Contrary to the hype in the story, the actual findings are somewhat different.

Does wearing eyeglasses reduce your likelihood of conviction?

Not really. Statistical probability was .08 which is almost (but not quite) significant at the .05 level. So it will work in some cases but it’s by no means a ‘silver bullet’.

Will African American defendants be found guilty more often than Caucasian defendants?

Race of defendant and race of participant did not predict verdict overall—but Caucasian participants were more likely to convict the African American defendant than the Caucasian defendant. Caucasian participants also reported they felt more confident in their verdict when the defendant was African American.

Are perceptions of attractiveness, intelligence and how threatening you appear to be related to whether you wear glasses?

Kind of, but it depends. Overall, Caucasian defendants were seen as more attractive, more friendly and less threatening than African American defendants. And both Caucasian and African American defendants were seen as more intelligent and less threatening when they wore eyeglasses. But when Caucasian defendants wore eyeglasses they were seen as less attractive and less friendly. However, African Americans were rated as more attractive and more friendly and less threatening with eyeglasses.

There are more findings in this research but the authors sum their findings up with the following statement:

“Our results suggest that eyeglasses are still related to increased ratings of intelligence and reduced ratings of threateningness, but eyeglasses’ effects on perceived attractiveness and friendliness may not be significant for Caucasians. Our study also supports previous research suggesting that Caucasian jurors have a negative bias toward African-American defendants. However, this bias is less prevalent when an African-American defendant is wearing eyeglasses.”

So, in other words, it will be more effective if the defendant is African American, as it appears to neutralize some of the racial bias by Caucasian jurors. We think there are more effective ways of helping jurors see your client as more like them and less like a ‘violent criminal’. But it’s always good when you see a blaring headline spouting a silver bullet defense—to dig around and see what the research really says. Chances are (as in this case) it’s a bit different and somewhere an academic is nervously shifting in their desk chair, concerned about how the results are being distorted.

The full citation of the research is below. Because we care about you, we’ll share a secret. We also found full text accessible (free) online here.

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