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To counter effect of facial biases in legal system, researchers suggest new training

By Ehren Wynder
According to a new study from Columbia University researchers, legal defendants who appear untrustworthy are more likely to be sentenced to death rather than life in prison. Now researchers at Columbia are recommending a new form of training to eliminate facial biases that could lead to more severe punishments for defendants with "untrustworthy" features. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI
1 of 2 | According to a new study from Columbia University researchers, legal defendants who appear untrustworthy are more likely to be sentenced to death rather than life in prison. Now researchers at Columbia are recommending a new form of training to eliminate facial biases that could lead to more severe punishments for defendants with "untrustworthy" features. File Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Researchers at Columbia University are recommending a new form of training to eliminate facial biases that could lead to more severe punishments for defendants with "untrustworthy" features.

Certain facial features, such as downturned lips and a heavy brow, can make someone seem untrustworthy, even though these do not have an effect on the person's character. But according to a new study from Columbia researchers, legal defendants who appear untrustworthy are more likely to be sentenced to death rather than life in prison. This was true even in cases in which participants were conscious of their bias.

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It might be possible, however, to eliminate facial biases altogether, the study said.

The study outlined the results of four experiments with 1,400 volunteers. The findings were reported by a group led by Jon Freeman, an associate professor of psychology, in the journal Psychological Science. The other authors were Youngki Hong and Kao-Wei Chua, postdoctoral researchers at Columbia.

Participants were shown 400 mugshots of inmates convicted of murder. Inmates whose faces were deemed less trustworthy were found far more likely to be sentenced to death than inmates without similar features, according to the study.

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The researchers' anti-bias training conditioned participants to dismantle their unconscious associations between certain features and an untrustworthy assumption. Rather than educate participants not to consciously rely on facial appearance, Freeman's team worked to make the implicit association between facial features and trustworthiness no longer reliable by having participants associate untrustworthy-looking facial features with trustworthy behavior.

"These findings bolster prior work that facial stereotypes may have disastrous effects in the real world, but, more importantly, provide a potential inroad toward combating these sorts of biases," Freeman said.

According to another study from researchers at the University of British Columbia, anti-bias training often fails because it is not always constructed with a clear definition of what implicit bias is, and trainings often assume making people aware of their own prejudices and stereotypes will eliminate biased behavior.

Freeman said future researchers must investigate whether this new type of training can be broadly applied and if the bias reduction persists over time.

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