One of the hallmarks of the American justice system is that it should be blind to individuals’ idiosyncratic descriptors including biological sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or physical attributes. Numerous studies have already established that this ideal is often violated (e.g., black men might receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts for the same crime). Can you think of a physical trait that might have a negative influence on a defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial?
In a 2013 paper published in the International Journal of Obesity, Natasha A. Schvey, Rebecca M. Puhl, Katherine A. Levandoski, and Kelly D. Brownell set out to explore whether defendants’ and participants’ weights and biological sex interact in yielding differential judgments for a given legal case.
The researchers created two mug shots each of a male and a female defendant by digitally manipulating their weight yielding four experimental conditions: lean male, obese male, lean female, and obese female. Participants (n = 471) were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions (i.e., a between-subjects design) wherein the images were shown along with a vignette that described a check fraud case. The mock jurors (i.e., the participants) then had to report their perceptions of guilt on a five-point Likert scale as well as their beliefs regarding the defendant’s a priori awareness of insufficient funds (necessary to establish guilt for a check fraud charge) and the defendant’s future likelihood of committing the same offence. Several other variables were collected from the participants including their “fat prejudice” and their attributions of causality for obesity (e.g., genes, poor willpower). Finally, the researchers calculated participants’ body mass index (BMI) scores based on their self-reported weights and heights thus permitting the authors to categorize the mock jurors into lean and overweight categories. The subsequent analyses were conducted separately for each of the four groups of participants: lean male participants (n = 94), overweight male participants (n = 72), lean female participants (n = 182), and overweight female participants (n = 123).
I shall restrict my discussion to the findings that dealt with the participants’ and defendants’ weights and biological sex. Interested readers could refer to the original article for the full discussion of all investigated variables along with all of the detailed statistical analyses. Here are the key relevant findings:
1) Male participants rated the obese female defendant as guiltier than her lean female counterpart (p < .05). This held true irrespective of the BMI category of the male participants.
2) Lean male participants were more likely to state that the obese female defendant had a priori knowledge of the insufficient funds in the bank account (i.e., a further measure of one’s guilt) as compared to her thin counterpart (p = .04). In other words, lean men were the sole group of participants who exhibited a “fat bias” along this metric.
3) Lean male participants considered the obese female defendant as more likely to issue a bad check in the future than her thin counterpart (p = .019). In other words, lean men were the only group who displayed a fat bias along this measure.
4) There were no statistically significant differences along any of the latter three metrics when contrasting the lean and obese male defendant for any of the four groups of participants.
Bottom line: In this study, men but not women manifested a fat bias and only toward female defendants. As the authors allude to in the discussion section, one area for future research might be to explore whether this form of prejudice would occur in the same form across a wide range of crimes. I should end by mentioning that this should not be taken as an indictment of the American justice system. Rather, any endeavor that involves people might at times offer a forum for human prejudice to emerge.
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