Facial Trustworthiness Predicts Extreme Criminal-Sentencing Outcomes

John Paul Wilson, Nicholas O. Rule

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

221 Scopus citations


Untrustworthy faces incur negative judgments across numerous domains. Existing work in this area has focused on situations in which the target’s trustworthiness is relevant to the judgment (e.g., criminal verdicts and economic games). Yet in the present studies, we found that people also overgeneralized trustworthiness in criminal-sentencing decisions when trustworthiness should not be judicially relevant, and they did so even for the most extreme sentencing decision: condemning someone to death. In Study 1, we found that perceptions of untrustworthiness predicted death sentences (vs. life sentences) for convicted murderers in Florida (N = 742). Moreover, in Study 2, we found that the link between trustworthiness and the death sentence occurred even when participants viewed innocent people who had been exonerated after originally being sentenced to death. These results highlight the power of facial appearance to prejudice perceivers and affect life outcomes even to the point of execution, which suggests an alarming bias in the criminal-justice system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1325-1331
Number of pages7
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number8
StatePublished - 7 Aug 2015


  • face perception
  • judgment
  • legal processes
  • open data
  • open materials
  • physical appearance
  • social perception


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