Simple Jury Persuasion: Add this to your “nerd defense” strategy!
You know we don’t think much of the nerd defense here at The Jury Room. But we bet this one is going to be added to the nerd defense strategy soon (if it hasn’t been already). In addition to sticking glasses on your defendant, you may also want to use tinted contact lenses to modify your client’s eye color to brown! “Do tell…”, you say. And of course, we will do just that.
A new Scientific American blog write up of a study in the online journal PLoS ONE trumpets the news that people with brown eyes appear more trustworthy to others. According to the Scientific American account,
“…238 participants rate[d] the faces of 80 students for trustworthiness, attractiveness, and dominance. [snip] Female faces were generally more trustworthy than male ones. But that’s wasn’t all. A much more peculiar correlation was discovered as they looked at the data: brown-eyed faces were deemed more trustworthy than blue-eyed ones. [snip] All the participants, no matter what eye color they had or how good-looking they thought the face was agreed that brown-eyed people just appear to look more reliable.”
Voila! Fake glasses. Brown contact lenses. A sure-fire formula for acquittal. And then again, maybe not.
The dilemma for nerd defense advocates is that they simply only read the popular media headlines and not the actual research article. And the popular media got it wrong. If you do that again here, you’ll be wasting your money on those brown contact lenses.
In this study, the researchers next swapped eye color on the photographs so that photos that used to feature brown-eyed photos were now of the same people, but with blue eyes, and photos that had been blue-eyed photos now had the same people appearing to have brown eyes. And something strange happened. The ‘eye color’ explanation blew up. Now the blue-eyed photos were judged more trustworthy and reliable. It wasn’t about eye color at all. It was about face shape. And this time, the popular media got it right. Good job, Scientific American! (Although it probably helps that the blog post was written by a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology!)
“To get at what’s really going on, the researchers took the faces and analyzed their shape. They looked at the distances between 72 facial landmarks, creating a grid-like representation of each face. For men, the answer was clear: differences in face shape explained the appeal of brown eyes. “Brown-eyed individuals tend to be perceived as more trustworthy than blue-eyed ones,” explain the authors. “But it is not brown eyes that cause this perception. It is the facial morphology linked to brown eyes.””
Note these findings declare the results are for men. And just for fun–the original research article says that more trustworthy men (i.e., the brown-eyed men) had “rounder and broader chins, a broader mouth with upward-pointing corners, relatively bigger eyes, and eyebrows closer to each other” while less trustworthy men (i.e., the blue-eyed men) had “more angular and prominent lower faces, a long chin, a narrower mouth with downward pointing corners, relatively smaller eyes and rather distant eyebrows”.
Women, on the other hand, were a bit different. The shape of women’s faces was much less variable than was the face shape of men. So the findings didn’t reach statistical significance for women–although the researchers say they “trended in that direction”. What makes for a trustworthy female face requires more research.
The goal of this post is to arm you against misinformation when the popular (and less informed) press and blogosphere starts to spin the study in errant directions. As far as trial advocacy goes, it’s obviously a lot easier to tweak someone’s eye color than it is the shape of their face. The good news is that we have no reason (yet!) to think that this initial photo-impression would survive even a brief exposure to the person live, in person, or on a witness stand. Sometimes, reality trumps expectations.
Kleisner K,, Priplatova L,, Frost P,, & Flegr J (2013). Trustworthy-Looking Face Meets Brown Eyes. PLoS ONE, 8 (1).