The "criminal look"

Kiwiguy recently linked to an article in Psychology Today that claims people can ascertain the criminality of a person, somewhat accurately, just by looking at him.

Criminals Look Different From Noncriminals

Yes, once again, you CAN judge a book by its cover
Published on March 13, 2011
by Satoshi Kanazawa
As it turns out, humans possess the ability to tell who’s a criminal and who’s not simply by looking at them because criminals look different from noncriminals.In this blog, I have repeatedly emphasized the fact that virtually all “stereotypes” are empirically true.  If they weren’t true, they would not be stereotypes in the first place.  To my knowledge, all of the very, very few stereotypes that are not empirically true, for some reason, have to do with people’s appearance.  Hence, it is not true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is not true that beauty is only skin-deep.
Another “stereotype” about physical appearance that is not empirically true is “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” In previous posts, I have explained that women can tell which men would make good fathers and which men would make bad fathers simply by looking at them.  And people can tell who are altruistic and who are egoistic simply by looking at a 30-second video clip without sound.
So, contrary to popular belief, you can assess people’s character and personality by simply looking at them.  Nice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty, and it appears that humans have innate psychological mechanisms to tell them apart…
The article proceeds to show us the photos of 32 young males, all with neutral expressions and all looking directly ahead.  These were the test subjects and half of them have criminal pasts.  The author tells us that race may complicate matters.  Well… he doesn’t actually come out and say that, but he implies it by being careful to include only white men in the study.  He also implies that age and gender may complicate matters.  After all, they are all young and all male.
I spent some time staring at the above faces trying to figure out what it is about them that allows us to determine the character of those who wear them.  The closest thing I could come up with, that might qualify as a hypothesis, is the “South Park Reverse Eye Brow Tactic” or S.P.R.E.B.T.  In South Park (and other comics) an evil person is readily recognizable by his sinister eyebrows and narrowed eyes.

South Park bully

A real criminal

People who walk around like South Park bullies in real life are probably just trying to make themselves look intimidating and macho.  Real criminals, who are smart enough to compensate and try to fool people into trusting them, will purposefully raise their eyebrows and widen their eyes to give the impression of innocence.
Just a bunch of malarkey from somebody who knows nothing about psychology?  Perhaps.  Look at the photos and judge for yourself.

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19 Responses to The "criminal look"

  1. Kiwiguy says:

    It reminds me a bit of Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’ where he suggested instant judgments tended to be pretty useful (except when they applied to race!).
    Some research from a few years ago suggested that there was a correlation between aggression and face shape. They looked at hockey players, although it’s interesting to look at other aggressive sportsmen to see the link.
    “The thesis developed by Mr Carré and Dr McCormick is that aggressiveness is predictable from the ratio between the width of a person’s face and its height. Their reason for suspecting this is that this ratio differs systematically between men and women (men have wider faces) and that the difference arises during puberty, when sex hormones are reshaping people’s bodies. The cause seems to be exposure to testosterone, which is also known to make people aggressive.”

  2. countenance says:

    Here might be a problem with this study: Define “criminal.” Do they mean one conviction for a minor misdemeanor, or multiple felonies?

  3. It’s a very interesting study. My wife and I pored over it for hours. There are four each of arsonist, those convicted of assault, murderers, and drug dealers, aged 20-28, with no facial hair or tattoos and neutral expressions. They are mixed in with 16 ordinary uni students of the same age range.
    Who are the criminals? What did they do? Can you guess? It’s fun and illuminating.

  4. Kiwiguy says:

    In the Ceci & Williams study, they comprise arsonists, assailants, drug dealers, and rapists.

  5. countenance says:

    Kiwiguy: If they use “drug dealers,” then I can understand how it could be hard to tell the “look” of such a criminal. A black inner city street corner crack/weed/heroin hustler “looks” the part, but the 20-something suburban white guy hawking ecstasy inside a nightclub on Friday and Saturday night looks like the All-American.

  6. Jeff Valla says:

    I’ve been curious to see how this particular study might be received in the blogosphere, especially since most heard about it indirectly via Dr. Kanazawa’s blog, so I hope you don’t mind my commenting on your insights, which so far are the most interesting in the ‘sphere, IMHO.
    @Kikiguy – this definitely is in the Blink category, though I have to give more credit to Ambady’s “Thin Slice” research, which brought these ideas to the attention of psychologists outside the field, as well as the general population. I bet if you asked Gladwell he’d say it was one of the main impetuses for Blink. Highly recommend Ambady and Rosenthal’s ’92 and ’93 papers cited in our study; super interesting and light on the jargon. Re Carre study, which is equally cool, we cited that paper in the original, longer version of the paper, but unfortunately got cut due to length restrictions. Re use of all white 20-28yo males, you’re right: we did this because race, gender, and age complicate the matter; but that’s what control variables are supposed to do. For instance, in the case of race, the complicating factor is not race per se, but rather the fact that socioeconomic status is linked with race, and socioeconomic status is, not surprisingly, closely linked with crime rate. Likewise men, especially men in that age range, are also more likely to commit crimes than women, so we control for sex so that this somewhat common knowledge isn’t being used to “cheat”.
    I really like the South Park example, because it illustrates two models of appearance-behavior connections that are just as good as the more historical and controversial model of inherent criminality. The first is called the “Dorian Gray Effect”, after the Oscar Wilde novel, which is essentially that you come to wear your experiences on your face, like someone who smiles often gains certain wrinkle patterns around their eyes and mouth. The second is the self-fulfilling prophecy model, where someone who looks socially deviant is treated as such, which in turn evokes sketchy behavior. In other words, they represent the ‘nurture’ of appearance and behavior connections. In the South Park example, the person could be “evil” (i.e. inherently), they could have done some socially-deviant things and affected those eyebrows as part of their newfound identity (Dorian Gray), or he could’ve been born with sinister-looking eyebrows and treated with distaste by others, which would probably give any normal person a chip on their shoulder.
    @countenance- it was the first conviction for all the criminals we used. I think it’s fair to say that most people who’ve been in and out of jail multiple times start to look a little harder, so yeah we wanted to control for the effect of the wear and tear of jail.
    @Kiwiguy: you’re spot-on; these drug dealers’ products of choice were typically glamor/party drugs. Same thing was true for most of the drug dealers I’m using in my next study.
    Thanks for tolerating this bit of navel-gazing.

    • jewamongyou says:

      My apologies for omitting the part that lists you, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams as the authors of the study. Are you the one pictured on the left, with all those electrodes on his head? What are those?
      Thanks for producing this fascinating study and for your insightful comment!

  7. Bantu Education says:

    Frustratingly the article didn’t give the answers but refer to a link which didn’t work for me. Maybe someone who had better luck can score mine….
    I employed good old racial profiling to help – I mostly went for those with small ears set high, as that is what blacks have.

  8. Bantu Education says:

    Thanks for your scoring but I deserve better marks as I only missed 4, not 7.
    I didnt get Nos: 5,10,11,21
    12 out of 16 is not bad..!!

  9. D says:

    This study has further implications. For example we know the now famous test of implicit racial bias wherein we’re shown pictures of black faces, white faces, and words that have negative or positive meanings, press a button here or there in response, and your bias is measured.
    Well UNLESS the creators of this study screened out images of people with criminal backgrounds, then this would pollute the results in favor of showing people to have a bias against, blacks, no?
    The reason is that random sampling of blacks and whites will be almost guaranteed to have many more black criminals than whites. And since criminality is picked up on, as this new study shows, people will have a bias against blacks to whatever degree black criminals are overrepresented. Thoughts?

    • jewamongyou says:

      Very interesting observation, though I would assume whites are not as good at reading black faces as white faces – and this might be one reason white women fall for black criminals unknowingly.

  10. Robbo says:

    I missed 6 out of 32 – and the 3 criminals that I missed I debated the most over. The problem that I have with the test was that I don’t believe that many of the men had neutral expressions – several of the criminals had obvious looks of contempt (3,11,21,27,28) and fear (4,10,16,24), and many of the non-criminals had half-smiles (2,12,13,14,18,19,25,30).
    BTW, isn’t #5 the psychopath Joran Van der sloot?

    • jewamongyou says:

      There certainly is a resemblance but I don’t think it’s the same guy. As for your problem, I don’t see it as a problem; obviously we’re looking for something, and that could be the “something”. Nobody is claiming it’s telepathy or magic.

  11. Robbo says:

    “Nobody is claiming it’s telepathy or magic.”
    From the 1st page of the study, “We then report two experiments in which participants, given a set
    of headshots of criminals and non-criminals, were able to reliably distinguish between
    these two groups, after controlling for the gender, race, age, attractiveness, and emotional
    displays, as well as any potential clues of picture origin.”
    I’m pretty sure that the authors of the study were attempting to show that we humans can detect things about others based on facial/cranial physiology – hence their reason to [attempt to] control for the above factors.

    • jewamongyou says:

      One of the authors of the study, Jeff Vala, responded above. He seemed intrigued by what I wrote about eyebrows. From this I gather that there was no assumption that people based their assumption on physiology. But most likely, they had no assumptions at all and were simply pointing out the phenomenon in the hope that somebody would solve the mystery.

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