New research out of Cornell University finds that people can identify criminals simply by looking at photos.
The researchers did all they could to make all things equal about the photos.
Participants saw head shots of “Caucasian males, ages 20 to 28, with similar attractiveness and facial expression.” Half were just guys, the other half were guys who had committed violent (forcible rape, murder, assault) or nonviolent (forgery, theft, arson and drug dealing) crimes. Nobody had tattoos, facial hair, or a menacing expression. Backgrounds were edited out.
Even so, according to research published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, participants could spot the bad guys.
Oh, and after the research, researchers asked participants if they could tell which of the photographs were mug shots. People who said they “knew” which photos were mug shots were worse at picking out the criminals than people who didn’t claim to know. So it wasn’t that.
Evidently criminals have a je ne sais qua that alerts people to their bad behavior.
Research participants weren’t good at telling the violent offenders from the nonviolent offenders, or pinpointing the type of crime—the drug dealers vs. the arsonists, for example.
But you know what they were worst at?
Spotting the rapists.
Rapists were rated least likely of all photo types, including noncriminals, to have committed any crime.
Women were particularly bad at it.
…females rated rapists as significantly less likely to have committed a crime than the other three criminal types…and significantly less likely to have committed a crime than non-criminals…
(Men did better than women, but the study included 33 women and only three men, so that might be an anomaly—three guys with particularly fine-tuned rapist radars. I asked researcher, doctoral student Jeffrey M. Valla, about this. He conceded the point and has more research underway, but also said that it doesn’t really matter who is better at it, it’s women who need to be good at it. …this doesn’t change the overall message and ecological speculation we make about rapists “flying under the radar” as a strategy to gain access to their victims…he wrote.)
Attractiveness might play into this. Photos of rapists were rated more attractive than other photo categories. And this might explain the gender difference, if it holds up under further research. And of course, the researchers concede, the rapists in our study may not be representative of the attractiveness of all rapists.
Be that as it may, this is very complicated news. On one hand, women should be aware that we may have a dangerous blind spot. On the other hand, what can we do about this? Avoid good-looking men? Hardly seems practical. Or fun.
I suppose researchers first must tease out what people are seeing that helps them identify the bad guys, then see if it’s missing in rapists or if we’re simply too dazzled by good looks to spot it.
What do you think? And do you think you can spot the criminals? Try for yourself. The photos, with a key, are at the end of the paper.
Photo by Vanessa, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 13 Apr 2011