Contrary to popular belief, you can assess people’s character and personality by simply looking at them. Nice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart. Now, in a truly groundbreaking study, recently published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams of Cornell University show that people can tell criminals and noncriminals apart simply by looking at their still photos. Criminals, it appears, look different from noncriminals.
The renewed focus on ecological and adaptive approaches in the mid 1980’s and early 1990’s, especially in the areas of person perception and impression formation (e.g., Baron & Boudreau, 1987; McArthur & Baron, 1983; Zebrowitz & Collins, 1997), reiterated Darwin’s prescient hypothesis of an adaptive significance to making quick, yet accurate, assessments of others’ traits. Since then research on accuracy has blossomed.
Recent research has confirmed the early intuitions of Darwin, Perrin, and Asch, finding that we are able to make surprisingly accurate judgments of others’ personalities, behaviors, sexual orientations, and competencies based on minimal interactions or even mere glimpses of them, and that these assessments occur rapidly and automatically.
In their experiments, Valla et al. show pictures of the faces of 32 young Caucasian men in their 20s, without scars, tattoos or excessive facial hair, all in neutral expressions. Sixteen of them are convicted criminals, and the other sixteen are not. Valla et al. simply ask their experimental participants to indicate how likely they think it is that each man is a certain type of criminal (murderer, rapist, thief, forgerer, assailant, arsonist, and drug dealer) on a 7-point Likert scale from 1 = extremely unlikely to 7 = extremely likely. Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not, by indicating that they believe the actual criminals have
Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not, by indicating that they believe the actual criminals have higher probability of being a criminal than actual noncriminals.
Can you tell which of them are criminals and which of them are not? If you are a woman, can you spot the convicted rapists among them? Because they are the only ones who tended to defy the experiment. This was attributed to the fact that they are naturally adept at fooling women.
Here are the results of the experiment:
Non-Criminal – 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 25, 26, 30; Arson – 5, 10, 16, 20; Assault – 4, 24, 27, 28; Drug Dealing – 8, 11, 21, 29; Rape – 3, 23, 31, 32