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When facial disfiguration disgusts

Monday, September 26, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

Last year, my then 16-year-old daughter volunteered at the SXSW Festival registration here in Austin. She came home after the first day and told me she had looked up from her computer workstation to assist the next person in line only to see a large birthmark covering 2/3 of his face and neck. She didn’t know where to look in order to not be rude and so looked intently into his eyes for too long a period of time and then became flustered. It was an interesting conversation for me to have with her—she knew enough to not look away, and to make eye contact but not enough to feel comfortable negotiating this unfamiliar territory. The birthmark was overtly different and disfiguring. She felt awkward and uncomfortable.

Scars work the same way. We’ve written before about scars that are seen as potentially “interesting” but new research shows that it’s a long ways in terms of our emotional reaction from an interesting scar to actual facial disfiguration. Oddly enough, people who have recently been sick are more prone to react negatively to facial disfigurations.

“When people have been recently sick, and therefore recently activated their physiological immune systems, they are more likely to pay attention to and display avoidance of disfigured faces”—which they read, like a rash or a sneeze, as a sign of contagion, says University of Kentucky psychologist Saul Miller.

Researchers asked participants four questions to assess recent illness.

“Over the past couple days, I have not been feeling well.”

“Lately, I have been feeling a little under the weather.”

“I have felt sick within the past week.”

“I had a cold or flu recently.”

Participants responded to these four questions on a continuum of strongly agree to strongly disagree. They also completed a categorical measure indicating the last time they had a cold (today, a couple days ago, a week ago, a couple weeks ago, a month ago, a few months ago, a year or more ago). Researchers divided the participants into those who had been recently ill (responding ‘today, a couple days ago, a week ago’) and those who had not been recently ill (all other categories).

Then participants were shown 40 photographs, (20 disfigured, 20 normal) and then asked to identify whether the following figure displayed on their screen was a circle or a square. Researchers were actually measuring how long it took the participant to respond to the identification task (and therefore, how long it took them to look away from the face on the screen). What they found was those who were recently ill spent more time looking at disfigured faces more than those who had not been recently ill.

In a follow-up experiment, researchers used a joystick method to have half the participants push the joystick away (avoidance) or pull it toward them (approach) when they saw a disfigured face. (The other half of the participants did the opposite—that is, they pushed the joystick away for the normal face and pulled it toward them for the disfigured face.) Again, those who had recently been ill were more likely to show distaste by being faster in pushing the joystick away when in the condition to avoid the disfigured face. The same finding was not seen in those without recent illness.

The researchers believe this action is largely unconscious—we see disfigurement as something that may make us sick (again) and therefore seek to avoid it while reacting to the perceived danger with disgust. It’s hard-wired into us—we seek to avoid contagion.

So—if you have a client with facial disfigurement, recent illness of jurors is a worthwhile consideration. And if you are opposing counsel, you want to take the ill and recently ill to perhaps trigger a disgust/aversion reaction to the facial disfigurement.

It’s an interesting dilemma. As with any client, it is part of your challenge to make the disfigured client more “like jurors” as we have previously discussed. Yet, this research says we are unconsciously prone to avoid/be disgusted if recently ill. When we see a person with a prominent disfigurement, we all wonder what happened.  Only little kids are so bold as to ask the disfigured person, but we all wonder.  And so your jury will be, too.  Consider asking the witness (or client) about the cause of the disfigurement.  Normalize it.  Make it more understood, and thus less of a distraction.  Unless they’ve recently had the flu.

Miller, S., & Maner, J. (2011). Sick body, vigilant mind: The biological immune system activates the behavioral immune system. Psychological Science.

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