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Smiling and credibility: Is it different for male and female witnesses at trial?

Friday, April 11, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

credibility and smilingWomen smile more than men. Men are typically seen as more credible than women. So these researchers decided to see if there was a relationship between smiling and assessments of credibility on actual witnesses in the courtroom. 

The researchers used the Witness Credibility Scale to assess actual witnesses overall credibility. They thought that if smiling influenced observer evaluations of likability, confidence, trustworthiness and knowledge (the facets of credibility measured by the Witness Credibility Scale) then smiling could influence witness credibility. So off to the courtroom they went to collect observational data from real courtroom testimony. They observed both criminal and civil trials (including proceedings related to worker’s compensation, assault, domestic violence, drug trafficking, and capital murder) over a period of 6 months and, in total, observed 22 male and 10 female witnesses. The majority of the ratings (87.5%) were based on direct examination by the prosecution (84.4%).

There were 21 Caucasian witnesses and 11 African-American witnesses and witnesses ranged in age from 19 to 70 years. The researchers used four trained raters–two assessing the frequency of “smiling behavior” and two assessing credibility using the Witness Credibility Scale. (The credibility raters were trained to use the scale but had no awareness of the study’s hypotheses. The raters counting smiles included the principal investigator and one other person who knew the hypotheses.)

Here is what the researchers found:

Of the 32 witnesses observed, 23 smiled (71.9%) and nine (28.1%) did not.There were more women that smiled than men and although the difference between male and female smiling witnesses did not reach significance, it “trended that way” according to the researchers.

Male witnesses were seen as more trustworthy than female witnesses.

Witnesses who smiled were seen as more likable and female witnesses who smiled were significantly more likable than both smiling male witnesses and non-smiling female witnesses. Oddly, smiling female witnesses were not more likable than non-smiling male witnesses. (The researchers wonder if the smiling male witnesses were seen as behaving in a way incongruent with gender norms and thus the smiling male witnesses were less likable than the non-smiling males.)

The researchers say that, “Contrary to expectations, gender and smiling did not impact ratings of trustworthiness”. Men were found more trustworthy than women witnesses, but when women smiled, they were more likable than everyone but unsmiling men. The researchers recommend female witnesses smile during testimony since it is expected of them (by virtue of gender roles).

As with the research on female expert witnesses we covered earlier this month, there is not a lot of good news for women witnesses here but what we do know now is that women witnesses can relax a little and smile–it won’t make them more credible than stoic men but it will make the women witnesses a little more likable. And every little bit helps.

Nagle JE, Brodsky SL, & Weeter K (2014). Gender, Smiling, and Witness Credibility in Actual Trials. Behavioral sciences & the law PMID: 24634058

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