Beauty and Truth: Why Attractive People Get the Benefit of the Doubt


A recent article in The Wall Street Journal postulated that the human brain biases us toward people who are attractive. Essentially, good-looking people get the benefit of the doubt and get more second-chances in life. Human beings are naturally more forgiving of attractive people than unattractive people.

Research seems to support this theory, and then some. Studies have shown that, not only are attractive people more often given the benefit of the doubt, but attractive people are judged to be overall kinder, more honest and more trustworthy than their unattractive counterparts. It doesn't seem fair – that's because it isn't.

When it comes to the next mayoral election, an attractive candidate is statistically more likely to be voted into office. When it comes to choosing a physician, patients are more likely to stick with and trust a doctor who is "easy on the eyes." The same principle applies to people accused of crimes.

Studies throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s showed that attractive defendants are more likely to be adjudicated "not guilty" while less attractive defendants are more likely to be convicted of crimes. It is also common for attractive people, even when they are convicted, to receive much lighter sentences than less attractive people do for the same crimes. How's that for "justice is blind"?

The Metaphorical vs. Literal

It seems as if this can be contributed to the metaphorical and the literal confusion in the brain. For example, the same region of the brain that is responsible for judging the attractiveness of someone's face is the same region that judges the goodness of someone's actions/behavior. In the context of criminal cases, this confusion between the metaphorical and the literal is concerning, because it produces two false assumptions:

  1. What is beautiful, attractive or pleasing to the eye is not guilty/good
  2. What is not guilty/good will be beautiful, attractive or pleasing to the eye

The justice system is designed to work objectively, but humans are subjective beings. As research shows, our brains don't always interpret things factually, which contributes to this imbalance.