American Injustice: Part 2 of 10

Based on the book Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado.
For more detailed information, read the book.

You Can’t Believe Your Eyes

A major difficulty in criminal justice is the public belief that criminals look like criminals. Many people believe they can identify a criminal by the person’s appearance. This false belief taints juries, lineups, and witness identifications. It’s the reason that attorney’s have clients clean up, get haircuts, and dress nicely for trial. It’s the reason psychopaths can use charm and attractiveness to lure victims. Serial killer Ted Bundy is a perfect example. He looked nothing like our image of a serial killer. But the more common problem is that juries, and even court attorneys, judges, and law enforcement officers, let appearance bias their judgement. As mentioned in Part 1, once investigators convince themselves of a person’s guilt, the interrogation becomes focused entirely on proving the investigator’s belief. Juries can also be influenced by confirmation bias – accepting information that confirms their pre-conceived beliefs and rejecting information that disproves their beliefs. Confirmation bias is one of the most common and most powerful biases humans have.

The belief that personality or character traits can be read from a person’s external appearance, especially the face, was so common many centuries ago that it became the subject of pseudoscientific research. Physiognomy was linked with the growing science of criminology in the 19th century, including the pseudoscientific branch of phrenology (head bumps), and has had episodes of resurgence more recently. We humans look for pattens in almost everything, and we manufacture meaning for those patterns. Exaggerating the significance of relatively permanent external physical features leads us to ignore other factors, such as exposure to environmental factors, traumas, injuries, illnesses, and neuroanatomical abnormalities.

The fact is, criminal behavior has far more to do with internal brain structures and functions than with external appearance. Brain tumors and brain dysfunction can be detected with modern imaging techniques, such as CT scans and MRIs. Abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) can cause lack of impulse control and inability to delay gratification and adhere to rules. The person knows right from wrong but cannot act in a moral fashion. Dysfunction in the amygdala (emotions, memory and decision making section) can cause lack of empathy and increased emotionless aggression and violence. Genetics and environmental factors, including early childhood abuse or neglect, nutritional deficiencies, toxins, etc., can affect many aspects of brain development. We have significant evidence for the harm of alcohol, nicotine and lead poisoning during fetal and early childhood development. For example, smoking during pregnancy increases the likelihood of criminality later in the child’s life by three times.

The human brain does not fully develop until about age 25. Adolescents have increased risk-taking, novelty-seeking and impulsive behavior, perhaps because these behaviors were adaptive in early human evolution and primitive tribal societies. However, treating a child or adolescent as an adult in court does not give the person an adult brain or recognize the child’s ability to mature and be rehabilitated.

Research has shown that simply wearing a mask (anonymity) or holding a gun increases aggression and criminal behavior in people. Those who hold a gun also see other people and objects as more threatening. Graffiti, unrepaired buildings and trash also encourage criminal behavior. Green spaces have the opposite effect.

A famous experiment by Stanley Milgram at Yale University showed that ordinary people were much more likely to give painful shocks to another person if others did so first, if the instructor was wearing a lab coat, or if the experiment was at Yale University rather than at a private facility. We are all much more influenced by situational factors than we want to believe.

The prevalence of weapons, blighted neighborhoods and poverty make a difference. Many things can push an ordinary person, especially a child or immature person, into criminal behavior.

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