Jury Bias: Attractiveness of Defendants & Victims


The main purpose of this study was to observe if participants would judge various offenses in court differently. The experimenters wanted to see if different backgrounds of an individual effected the court decision that they received.

The sample size for this experiment was taken from a psychology class at Lebanon Valley College. The class consisted of 16 students, who represented all different majors and backgrounds. The students were selected very randomly. They were dealt a piece of paper that described an alcohol related accident, the students then had to decide how many years they would give in jail as a punishment.

The students could have randomly received any of the four conditions. These conditions included: attractive defendant/attractive victim, attractive defendant/unattractive victim, unattractive defendant/unattractive victim, and finally, unattractive defendant/attractive victim.

A non-experimental design was used for this experiment because the conditions the participants were given were very similar to that of a survey. The survey asked three questions: on a scale of 1 – 9, what is your impression on both the defendant and the victim, how many years should the defendant spend imprisoned, and what issues did you think were important in deciding the length of imprisonment?  From the responses to these questions, we found that there is a difference in the sentencing of a defendant, based on the backgrounds of the defendant as well as the victim.



In past studies, it has been proven that a person’s attractiveness or background does have influence on a jury’s decision. Michael D. Dowdle did an experiment in which undergraduates made judicial decisions based on a hypothetical court case. The recommended sentences for a negatively described defendant were significantly longer than those for a positively described defendant. Another study, observed by Richard A. Kulka, examined the influence of litigant physical attractiveness on decisions of 91 undergraduates playing the role of non-deliberating jurors in an automobile negligence trial.

This study required more observation from the participants, by having an audiovisual presentation of the trial, rather than a short written example. The findings of this experiment showed that the sample that viewed an attractive plaintiff and an unattractive defendant found more often in favor of the plaintiff and awarded more money in damages than the sample that viewed an unattractive plaintiff and an attractive defendant.

In another study, Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld looked to see if jurors viewed racism as a bias. The research presented in her research suggests that African Americans may be more likely than whites to be accused and convicted of hate crimes. She tested this hypothesis through a mock-juror design, which the ethnicity of the victim and offender were varied. Contrary to the original hypothesis, it was concluded that the offender’s and victim’s ethnicity did not usually affect the juror decisions.

Janet Sigal conducted another study similar to these in 1978. In this study, undergraduates individually judged a defendant as guilty or not guilty, in a simulated jury setting involving murder and attempted robbery. It was found that the attractiveness of the defendant did not affect the decisions made by the participants. This type of study is very important because it questions how reliable and fair a human jury can be. In a society where crimes are committed everyday, and lives are changed everyday based on jury decisions, this experiment shows a lot of value. This experiment was very simple and focused. It hypothesized that there can be bias among jurors, but it does not indicate why this is possible.



The participants in this study were undergraduate students from Lebanon Valley College. All participants were enrolled in an experimental psychology class. There were approximately 16 students who participated, who ranged in age from 18 – 21.

There were about the same number of male and female students in the sample. Random sampling was done to obtain this sample. Each student had the equal chance at receiving any one of the four different situations.

Due to the fact that a random sample was done, there was a representation of all different backgrounds including race, culture, and socioeconomic status. No rules were applied to the selection process of this sample. Each participant was able to participate in this study.


The participants were assigned to their groups by the professor randomly handing out pieces of paper. There were four total groups included in this design. The four groups were divided into attractive defendant/attractive victim, unattractive defendant/attractive victim, attractive defendant/unattractive victim, and unattractive defendant/unattractive victim.

All four groups were treated the same, except for the manipulation o the readings. Each group had a different description of the victims and defendants.


This study was conducted inside of a classroom located in the Garber Science Center on Lebanon Valley College’s campus. The only material used for this study was the sheet of paper with the scenario and questions on it.

The participants were first told that they were going to read a story, and then answer three questions about the story. They were instructed to not look at other participant’s papers, and to fill out the questions truthfully. The papers were then handed out, and students read their specific case.

After reading the case thoroughly, the participants then filled out and answered the three questions on the back of the paper. Once all participants were done answering the questions, the professor then asked what the punishment should be.

After hearing all participants’ responses, the study was then explained to the sample.



The measures and data n which predictions for this experiment depend are the mean and standard deviation. The sample calculated both of these numbers for all four groups. The mean was the average number of years of imprisonment for each of the four groups. These calculations can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1.

Mean years of imprisonment for defendants.

Groups: Attractive defendant / Attractive victim Unattractive defendant / Attractive victim Attractive defendant / Unattractive victim Unattractive defendant / Unattractive victim
Mean: 16.67 yrs. 24 yrs. 15 yrs. 18 yrs.

As shown by the data, the group with the attractive defendant/unattractive victim was more lenient on the severity of the punishment. This group felt that the number of years for the crime committed should be 15 years. Where as, the unattractive defendant/attractive victim group felt that the punishment for the defendant should be more abrasive. This group, on a whole, felt that the defendant should see 24 years of imprisonment for his crime.

In between these two groups was the attractive defendant/attractive victim group as well as the unattractive defendant/unattractive victim. The mean for the attractive defendant/attractive victim group was 16.67 years, while the mean for the unattractive defendant/unattractive victim was 18 years. This is logical because both parties, the defendant and victim, were virtually equal in background. Hence, the participants made their judgments on their interpretations of the crimes severity.

The second data calculation that predictions were dependent upon was standard deviation. We calculated the standard deviation for the number of years each defendant received for the crime they committed. The standard deviation measures how many years off the average each group was.

The group that had the attractive victim/attractive defendant had the highest deviation, which was 6.24 years. The unattractive defendant/unattractive victim deviated the second most, with 5.87 years. The group with an attractive defendant/unattractive victim deviated from the mean by 1.41 years. And the unattractive defendant/attractive victim group deviated from the mean by .89 years. This data is illustrated below in Table 2.

Table 2.

The standard deviation of years for each group.

Groups: Attractive defendant / Attractive victim Unattractive defendant / Attractive victim Attractive defendant / Unattractive victim Unattractive defendant / Unattractive victim
Deviation: 6.24 yrs. .89 yrs. 1.41 yrs. 5.87 yrs.


These results were expected. The two groups that were most controversial were the two that had the same type of victim and defendant. Due to the fact that one person was not portrayed as being better, the participants used their own opinions on making the decisions.

The two other groups deviated by less than 2 years, this is because they were influenced by either how bad the defendant was, or by how good the victim was. This supports the theory that attractiveness of a victim or defendant can influence juror’s sentencing decisions.



The major findings of this study indicate that the attractiveness of the victim and defendant do influence the decisions made by jurors. In this particular study, negligent automobile homicide was the crime.

The group that received the harshest punishment was the unattractive defendant/attractive victim. This supports common knowledge; it is the most logical group to receive the most years. If the defendant is unattractive, this will make the jury bias by thinking that the person is bad and deserves more punishment. If the victim is attractive, this will also influence the jury to give a stronger punishment.

The group with the next severe punishment was the unattractive defendant/unattractive victim with a mean of 18 years. This shows that when the victim and defendant are either both attractive or both unattractive, participants felt that the unattractive defendant deserved more time in jail. So, in either case, the two groups with unattractive defendants deserved the most time, in the eyes of the participants. These findings help support theories that past experiments have developed.

This is one experiment of many though. There have been experiments in the past that showed no bias. There are many limitations on this study. You cannot use a real life courtroom to run this experiment. If you make a defendant look as if he or she is a hindrance to society, to see what kind of judgment he or she will get, you are overstepping your ethical boundaries.

This study supports many different hypotheses. It finds that, in general, the attractiveness of defendants and victims does influence the severity of their punishment. It also shows that individuals do have different ways of interpreting how much punishment someone should receive for a crime committed, negligent automobile homicide in this case.


Dowdle, Michael D. (1974). Integration and attribution theories as predictors of sentencing by simulated jury. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 1(1), 270-272.

Gerstenfeld, Phyllis B. (1997). On prejudice and punishment:  The constitutional and policy dilemmas of hate crime and laws. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences & Engineering, 57(12-B), 7775.

Kulka, Richard A. (1978). Is justice really blind? The influence of litigant physical attractiveness on juridical judgment. Journal of Applied Social Psychology8(4), 366-381.

Sigal, J. (1978). The effect of attractiveness of defendant, number of witnesses, and personal motivation of defendant on jury decision making behavior. Psychology: A Journal of Human Behavior, 15(3), 4-10.

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