January 6, 2014

Account for “Lookism”

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:


A few days ago, I was reading through documents for a medical malpractice defense. The case involved a woman who died under OB/GYN care. As sometimes happens, I found myself wanting a mental picture as I read the story. After I typed in her name, my browser quickly returned the memorial website complete with the photo: smiling, young, blond, and very pretty. Of course, it is not fair that beauty should seem to magnify the tragedy, yet it does. The social science research confirms that intuition. Attractiveness matters in all human evaluations: victims, parties, witnesses, and attorneys as well. 

If it was a simple relationship between attractiveness and positive evaluation, we might just stop there. But as with most things social-scientific, the effect is not always what you would expect. For example, a new large-scale study (Gordon et al., 2014) showed that more attractive students indeed get better grades. But looking at 9,000 students over a span of more than 30 years, the study showed that what matters most is just being above average. That is, the smoking-hot – or, more technically, those rated at the extreme high-end of subjective attractiveness scales — did not enjoy any statistically significant advantage over those who were simply better looking than most. Similarly, those who were simply average enjoyed no advantage over those who were below average. This study is just one of a number focused on the difference looks can make, and “lookism” does not confer a consistent advantage to the better looking. I share this on a litigation blog not so you can pretty-up your witnesses,but so we can understand the fuller picture of how we evaluate other people and the degree to which looks matter in that evaluation.

Research: The Power (and Perils) of Pretty

Though some might see this as an effort to document the obvious, there is a fairly large body of research on attractiveness. Drawing from a review in Psyblog, here are a few of the more interesting results:

  • There is a “halo effect” demonstrating that those who are viewed as more attractive are also seen as more intelligent, humorous, interesting and socially adept.
  • Attractive people are better at persuading others.
  • Members of the same gender are more likely to see attractive people as less talented.
  • Attractive people are more likely to be seen as having succeeded based on their looks.

Recommendations: Consider Attractiveness

We might be used to focusing on the aspects of a witness we can most easily change: posture, word choice, tone of voice, etc. Even as we can mediate attractiveness to some extent through apparel, makeup, or even attitude, it is still closer to a trait. So my recommendations here are not focused on beautifying your witness, especially since attractiveness is not a positive in all contexts. Instead, the best advice is to assess and adapt to how it could play a role in your case.

Look at the Witness

It sounds simple, but don’t forget to see your witnesses as people and not just as configurations of evidence. Think about how they will be seen and not just about what they will say. If you met them for just a few minutes, what impressions would you form?

Learn How Attractiveness Plays

Your witness’s looks won’t carry the same effect in every case. In some cases, the simple halo effect may make the attractive witness more believable or more important. In other contexts, attractiveness might place a question mark over the witness’s competence based on the idea that they got where they are based on looks. In all cases, it makes sense to test the effect.

Leverage Attractiveness in the Best Direction

Remember the first study mentioned above: The benefits of attractiveness mattered most at the level of simply being above average. If that is true in a trial context, then relative attractiveness is a factor for far more witnesses than you would think. Your relatively good looking expert, for example, may require early and extra attention to their hard work and competence.

Reactions to witnesses, of course, constitutes just one slice of the trial experience. There are also non-witness parties, attorneys, and court personnel. As the jurors try to focus their reactions on the evidence, they’ll inevitably notice the people as well. Ultimately, the research on the benefits and liabilities of attractiveness provides the reminder that your fact finders are reacting to the whole picture.


Other Posts on Witness Assessment: 


Gordon, R. A.; Crosnoe, R., & Wang, X. (2014). Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Assets and Distractions. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-118-88001-2

Photo Credit: bpbailey, Flickr Creative Commons (edited photo of street art)


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