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).
When we first blogged on the ‘nerd defense’ we thought it was an interesting story of how the media distorts research findings to make an intriguing headline. We even wrote about how to really use the actual research findings in your own case in our Simple Jury Persuasion series. And then we asked the author of the research to write for us in the American Society of Trial Consultants flagship publication The Jury Expert.
Michael Brown wrote an article titled ‘Eyeglasses and mock juror decisions’ for the publication. (Notice this title is much less catchy than the ‘nerd defense’. That’s what sells newspapers!) In the article he tells us what he actually found in that research.
“Our line of research suggests that the presence of eyeglasses on a defendant may significantly affect verdict outcome. However, this effect is likely to be small and indirect. In both scenarios, the presence of eyeglasses increased ratings of defendants’ intelligence. For the violent crime scenario, this increase was associated with less guilty verdicts. Eyeglasses also decreased ratings of defendants’ as threatening; however, this decrease was not significantly related to verdict. Thus, how intelligent a defendant appeared was a better predictor of verdict outcome than how physically threatening he appeared. Future research should examine if other indicators of intelligence (level of education, vocabulary, etc.) produce the similar effects.” See the full article here.
So essentially, what the research says is the eyeglasses might be significant in criminal cases. Might. Following this project, Dr. Brown conducted a study to see if the effects were the same for white collar defendants. In this one (briefly summarized in The Jury Expert) Dr. Brown found that it was actually worse for white collar defendants to wear glasses. As we consider these results, it seems possible to us that a criminal defendant wearing glasses appears less violent and more vulnerable while a white collar defendant wearing glasses looks shifty and more sneaky to jurors. Different frames (dare we say lenses) for looking at a defendant seen as intelligent.
As always in The Jury Expert, various trial consultants comment on the article and then readers write in with comments. One reader wrote in with cautions about it being inappropriate to use research based on college students to discuss potential juror reactions and that you could not use these results in the courtroom. Dr. Brown responds with research findings on the generalizability of college student research to ‘real people’. We have a bit of a different perspective on this issue.
‘People’ try to use research findings all the time. The original newspaper story resulting in the media frenzy over this research makes that abundantly clear. Our belief (as evidenced by our various writings for more than a decade) is that if it is going to happen, it should be happening based on the actual research itself rather than on sensationalized media accounts [which are almost always wildly inaccurate].
We believe there is a gold mine of utility in the findings of research largely based on college student responses. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know we believe that based on many of our posts. Most academic research on human reactions is based on college students, and most of the subjects are freshman (participation often being a requirement of introductory Psych 101 classes). Our practice is based on both experience in the courtroom and in pretrial research but also in the academic writings of researchers who are creating the knowledge of tomorrow. So we want to say ‘thanks’ to Michael Brown and all the other researchers who are out there writing about their research to give us insights into how even the smallest of individual characteristics may be interpreted by triers of fact. Just like we track the polls we track new research. We’re searching for gold.
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 NYDailyNews.com 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.
Michael J. Brown, Ernesto Henriquez, & Jennifer Groscup (2008). THE EFFECTS OF EYEGLASSES AND RACE ON JUROR DECISIONS INVOLVING A VIOLENT CRIME. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY , 26 (2)
When my kids were studying for the SAT exam, one of the first things they read was that answers containing ‘never’ or ‘always’ were almost certain to be incorrect responses. They were not amazed by this revelation since they’ve been told this from early on in their educational testing experiences. So seeing the title of this news article (Defense lawyers swear by gimmick of having defendants wearing glasses at trial) was a bit disconcerting. What the article basically says is that to implement an ‘unspoken nerd defense’ just have your client dress nicely and wear glasses. The jury will [totally] think that your client could never have done what s/he is accused of doing.
We tweeted this story and immediately got a response back from a criminal defense attorney:
I didn’t swear by [the] defendants wearing glasses *gimmick*. Have had 2 murder defendants that were glasses wearers. Both convicted.
We wouldn’t swear by it either. Jurors are smarter than that. The article advocating a ‘nerd defense’ quotes attorney Joyce Davis who says:
“A lot of things are conveyed by eyeglasses. They look more intellectual or like someone who goes to school. I advise clients to dress like they’re going to church or to visit their grandmother.”
And they cite several instances of when the tactic has worked. And when it hasn’t worked! Then again, when it works, was it the glasses, the interaction of the glasses with other elements, or something else altogether?
This story hit the blogosphere like a lightning bolt. Everyone from law enthusiasts to optical shops to attorneys blogged about it. (A quick web search for “nerd defense” will show you the level of inspiration gleaned from this brief article.) And many of them were bitter about the tactic—some even questioned if this was a permissible practice.
It isn’t a crime to ‘clean up your witness’. As you can see from that last link, sometimes the court will even pay for it! It’s simply a gimmick. And that’s it. It all comes down to visual identity. Overall, does your client look like the kind of person who would do that of which s/he is accused, or not? Glasses can be a part of it along with a modest skirt, an ironed shirt, shined shoes, haircut, tattoos, piercings, shuffling gate, sagging pants… it all adds up. The idea that the Nerd Defense might work (or help) is an extension of the fact that Nerds are evidently viewed as being less likely to commit crimes (except maybe computer hacking). If they create an image of someone who “doesn’t look like they would do that sort of thing”, it will aid in the defense.
The Nerd Defense doesn’t ‘ALWAYS’ work. And it doesn’t ‘NEVER’ work. It depends on your specific jury and it depends on what opposing counsel does to derail your plan. A really simple way to derail this sort of ‘unspoken’ defense is to show a photo from an earlier time when they were dressed for life, instead of for trial. There are multiple other ways to derail the ‘nerd defense’ and it’s a sad commentary on our gullibility that jurors apparently convict spectacle-wearing defendants less often. Our next post will summarize the actual 2008 research at the heart of the ‘nerd defense’.
As Editor of The Jury Expert, I get to see everything we publish early and so I’m always really excited (and relieved) when we upload to the web. We have a new issue for your reading pleasure. And if you haven’t seen it, the time is now. Here’s what you can expect to see at the Jury Expert site:
by Michael Forster, Gernot Gerger and Helmut Leder
Another addition to the literature on how wearing eyeglasses changes how others perceive us. We’ve heard about the “nerd defense” and that glasses often make you less attractive. Well, guess what?! If you wear a certain style of glasses, you not only look more intelligent and trustworthy, but you are no less attractive. Whoa! Schedule time for a quick visit to an optical shop once you see this.
by Charli Morris
Ever had an expert witness object to a question posed by opposing counsel? Or have your expert’s testimony include an expletive like ‘Holy Mackerel!’? If you have not, be grateful and read this article so you are prepared when it does happen. If you have, you will be grateful for this article from Charli Morris on how to prepare your expert to testify in a way that is credible and likable to jurors.
by Chris Rodeheffer, Sarah Hill and Charles Lord
When we are in plentiful economic times, Whites label Biracial faces as White. When we are in times of scarcity, Whites label Biracial faces as Black. Three evolutionary psychologists present some basic research on our tendency to define in-group and out-group members differently depending on whether we see our world through a lens of plenty or poverty. Four ASTC member trial consultants respond and some of them don’t like what they see here.
by Jim McGee
How does our sense of social power influence how we respond to evidence and argument in the courtroom? Jim McGee gives us a summary of his original research and specific ways we can apply his findings to various sorts of cases and tasks throughout the case preparation process.
by David Mykel
How can you use your litigation graphics most effectively to tell a visually compelling story suited to today’s demanding courtroom audience? David Mykel offers three tips and provides examples of graphics that tell the story you want your jurors to hear.
by Adam Alter
Adam Alter’s new book is titled ‘Drunk Tank Pink’. If you know what this refers to, your life has been more exciting than mine. This book contains a plethora of fun-to-know facts that are based in research and not anecdote. There are ample “oh, that’s why that happens!” moments along the way. And you can listen to a 5 minute excerpt about just what “drunk tank pink” means on the web to see if this is something you would enjoy.
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