Are Good-Looking People More Likely to Get Away With Murder?
What the Jeremy Meeks mugshot phenomenon tells us about ourselves.
Posted June 23, 2014
Is the man in this photo a felon or a Calvin Klein model?
If you guessed the former, you’d be correct—but an indisputable criminal record isn’t preventing Jeremy Meeks, 30, from becoming a bona fide internet celebrity. His mug shot went viral after it was posted on the Stockton (Calif.) Police Department’s Facebook page earlier this month along with information about a local crime-stopping program. The photo now boasts more than 93,000 likes and 25,000 comments—many of them peppered with heart emoticons and declarations of love.
But this very public outpouring of support at least suggests that very few of his newfound fans are bothered by Meeks's alleged crimes. His mother, who claims that he has moved on from his criminal past, including a two-year sentence for grand theft, insists that he is innocent of the new weapons and gang charges he faces. Her crowdfunding page, "Free Jeremy Meeks" has already raised more than $4,000, thanks in no small part to his sudden notoriety. Meeks's Facebook fan page, full of family photos, has almost 200,000 "likes." And while there's no shortage of critical comments about why anyone would rally to support for this particular defendant just because he's handsome, other comments are more along the lines of this one: “If your heart was a prison, I would like to be sentenced for life.”
Why We Care
Research suggests that Meeks's unusual situation can be explained by the "halo effect" of attractiveness—our tendency to unconsciously assign to attractive people favorable traits such as talent, kindness, honesty and intelligence. The effect helps to explain why we are attracted to Brad Pitt, as well as pretty, shiny inanimate objects. It's an inherent superficiality that we aren't usually consciously aware that we're guilty of.
"People who are physically attractive are assumed to be clever, successful and have more friends," researcher Sandie Taylor, Ph.D., has explained. "It is tragic in a way.”
Taylor has cited Ted Bundy, the notorious serial killer who murdered more than 30 young women, as an example of a criminal who used his good looks to lure his victims—and, at least to a point, charm jurors. "[I]f that forensic evidence hadn’t been there, he might well have got off, because he was quite charming and knew how to work people," she has said.
Aren’t we normally drawn to charming people? Don’t we want them to like us? And wouldn't we resist putting them behind bars if we could? It appears to be true: Studies have found that unattractive defendants are more likely to be found guilty by juries than those who are good-looking. A recent Forbes.com article makes this point, expanding beyond the jury system to highlight studies showing advantages offered to people deemed better looking throughout their lives. Attractive children, for example, get punished less than other kids. Teachers assume their academic potential to be higher.
This bias leads other children to have less belief in themselves and less confidence. Receiving less attention, they go on to achieve less, according to the research cited by Forbes.com piece. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that “ugly people are more often tempted—or perhaps pushed—into a life of crime than people who are physically attractive.”
Meeks would be an exception to that rule. What will be the verdict when his case comes to trial? If a jury sets him free, will a modeling contract await? His fans may hope for the latter, but in the meantime, they may want to explore their motivations.
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