Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do Attractive People Fare Better in the Courtroom?

Research reveals how juries really think.

It is unfortunate (but old) news that modern society is unhealthily obsessed with physical appearance. Despite this, one would hope that at least in the courtroom, physical appearance would not come into play. In fact, some would say that the courtroom—as a place of equity, impartiality, and justice—should be the last place where something like physical appearance should matter.

But it does.

According to a Cornell University study by Justin J. Gunnell and Stephen J. Ceci, more attractive defendants are less likely to be found guilty than less attractive ones. In addition, if there are monetary damages involved, then more attractive plaintiffs tend to receive higher rewards. The study states:

“Information processing can proceed through two pathways, a rational one and an experiential one. The former is characterized by an emphasis on analysis, fact and logical argument, whereas the latter is characterized by emotional and personal experience."

The authors hypothesized that some jurors were more experiential than others, and that those jurors would reward attractiveness to a higher degree.

The study confirmed that jurors who were more experiential gave an average of 22 months more jail time to those that they deemed unattractive—almost two years. This unequal treatment does appear to be mitigated by the seriousness of the alleged offense, though: In cases involving the most serious offenses, and with strong evidence, the attractiveness bias was less pronounced. The study also seems to indicate that more rational jurors—that is, those who tend to process information based on facts and logical arguments rather than emotion—are largely able to avoid the bias.

In Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, fictional attorney Atticus Finch makes this famous closing argument:

Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the government is fond of hurling at us. . . . We know that all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe. Some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they are born with it, some men have more money than others, and some people are more gifted than others.

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal. An institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the ignorant man the equal of any president, and the stupid man the equal of Einstein. That institution is the court. But a court is only as sound as its jury, and the jury is only as sound as the men who make it up.

It is worth thinking about.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this blog or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any law firm or Psychology Today.

More from Ruth Lee Johnson J.D.
More from Psychology Today