The Impact of Social Attractiveness of the Victim and Defendant on the Length of Sentence Given to the Defendant

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08/02/20 Psychology Reference this

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Abstract

         The purpose of this study is to prove the existing correlation between social attractiveness of the defendant and/or victim and the length of sentence given to the defendant. The participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions which manipulated the social attractiveness of the victim and/or the defendant involved in the crime. The participants were then asked to rate the defendant and victim based on how they were portrayed in the condition and were then asked to give a length of sentence for the defendant who committed the crime. The results reveal that there was a significant difference in ratings based on how the victim and defendant were described in either scenarios. The results also indicated that the length of the sentence given to the defendant was affected by how the victim and defendant were described as well. Supporting our hypothesis, the results illustrate that the social attractiveness of both defendant and victim can impact the severity of their sentence.

The Impact of Social Attractiveness of the Victim and Defendant on the Length of Sentence Given to the Defendant

         Extralegal biases, or biases influenced by information not relevant to the case, can play a significant role in the outcomes of court cases and are a large factor that the jury considers when making a verdict. Extralegal bias consists of different factors such as past criminal records, marital status, age, war records, physical attractiveness and occupation (Nemeth & Sosis, 1973). These factors however, all encompass one factor: social attractiveness, the factor that our study focuses on. The social attractiveness of the defendant tends to influence the severity of the punishment given. When the victim is portrayed with socially attractive qualities, then the jury tends to impose the defendant different sanctions than if the victim is described with socially unattractive qualities. Studying social attractiveness and how it influences jury decisions, provides insight on how to provide more fair trials in order to benefit both the defendant and the victim alike. The purpose of this present study is to determine the relationship between the social attractiveness of the victim and defendant and the severity of the punishment for the defendant.

         Studies emphasize the idea that social attractiveness of the defendant plays a significant role in affecting the severity of the punishment received. Landy and Aronson (1969) found that social attractive defendants received a less severe punishment than a social unattractive defendant. In addition to this, in a study conducted by Nemeth and Sosis (1973), the researchers found that socially unattractive defendants were given a harsher sentence than socially attractive defendants.

Researchers have studied possible explanations as to why this bias in favor of socially attractive defendants exists. One possible suggestion made by Nemeth and Sosis (1973) for the reason this bias exists is the assumption of negative stereotypes on the defendant. In their study, Nemeth and Sosis (1973) found that the subjects made assumptions that the undesirable defendant was more inclined to bad drinking habits based on his character, despite the lack of any evidence of that. Furthermore, Nemeth and Sosis (1979) found that the subjects also assumed that the socially attractive defendant had greater sorrow or remorse after the accident and that he was less of a heavy drinker compared to the socially unattractive defendant. In addition to this, the researchers found that the respectability of the social attractive defendant also led the subjects to assume that the defendant felt very sorry for his crime and that it could be possible that the subjects used this regret to be a partial punishment, resulting in a less severe sentence. This assumption in character emphasizes the idea of social attractiveness having a significant role in the severity of the sentence given to defendants because despite no proof or evidence of any of these assumptions, the subjects took these assumptions as fact and used them as a basis for giving the social attractive defendant a lighter sentence. Another suggestion given by Griffitt and Jackson (1973) is the similarity in attitudes and social orientation to the defendant plays a role in the social attractiveness of the defendant. The people of the jury possibly associate themselves with the defendant who is more similar in attitude and social orientation, thus leading to a higher social attractiveness and a less harsh sentence for the defendant. Oppositely, if the defendant did not have similar attitudes and a similar social orientation to the jury, the jury’s perception of social attractiveness of the defendant went down, which in turn led to a harsher length of sentence for the defendant. In addition to this, the social attractiveness of a defendant is based on the overall judgement of the defendant. In a study conducted by Alike and Zell (2009), the researchers found that blame of the accident on the perpetrator was lower for a socially attractive defendant than it was for a socially unattractive defendant. In addition to this Alike and Zell (2009) found that the likeableness of the socially attractive defendant was higher, and that the cause of the accident and injuries was lower for the socially attractive defendant. This illustrates the effect of social attractiveness on the sentence length of the defendant because the socially attractive defendant received less blame for the accident, this in turn possibly results in a less harsh length of sentence for the defendant. Similar to this, Mckillip and Posavac (1975) found that people are more inclined to give blame to a defendant that resembles themselves in a way to defend themselves as if they were in a similar situation. The results of the study found that there was less blame and more likeableness toward the person at fault by a group of participants who related more with the defendant. This in turn illustrates that social attractiveness plays a role in the length of sentence given to the defendant because a person similar to the participants most likely had a perception of being socially attractive to those participants, and giving out less blame to that person in turn would also affect the sentence time of the defendant in a similar situation.  Overall, it is predicted that the social attractive defendant will receive a less harsh sentence compared to the social unattractive defendant.

         Studies reveal that the social attractiveness of the victim of a crime can also play a significant role in influencing the jury’s decision in severity of the defendant’s punishment. In a study discussed previously conducted by Landy and Aronson (1969) the results indicated that the subjects who had the description of a socially attractive victim tended to give the defendant a more severe punishment compared to the subjects who had been described a socially unattractive victim. Furthermore, Jones and Aronson’s study (1973) which studied the impact of the characteristics of a woman who has been a victim of rape on the severity of the defendant’s punishment, further highlights the idea of social attractiveness or respectability influencing the severity of punishment received by the defendant. 

Studies have looked at possible explanations as to why this bias based on the social attractiveness of the victim exists. One possible suggestion given by Landy and Aronson (1969) is that a more socially attractive victim may make the subjects view the defendant in a more socially unattractive viewpoint. Furthermore, Landy and Aronson (1969) also suggested that subjects perceived the crime to be much more serious when the victim was socially attractive rather than socially unattractive. This perception emphasizes the importance of studying social attractiveness, because regardless of evidence or the truth, the subjects still deem the defendant as more socially unattractive due to the social attractiveness of the victim, and therefore view this crime as very serious, influencing the subject’s decision in severity of the punishment for the defendant. In a study conducted by Greene, Koehring, and Quiat (1998) the researchers suggested that this bias on the social attractiveness of the victim exists because they felt more compassion for the socially attractive victim’s family due to their loss of such a good contributor to the community. With that said, another suggestion as to why this bias towards socially attractive victims occurs is because the subjects view the death of the socially attractive victim as a great loss for the community. Because of this, the crime as deemed much more serious and it influences the subjects to give a more severe punishment to the defendant. Furthermore, it is predicted that the social attractiveness of the victim will impact the length of the sentence of the defendant.

         Overall, it is predicted that the social attractiveness of both the defendant and the victim plays a significant role in the level of severity in the punishment the defendant receives. The hypotheses were tested by manipulating the social attractiveness of both the victim and defendant in varying conditions. The subjects responses to how long the defendant should be sentenced to prison were then recorded and studied to examine how the cause of social attractiveness of both types of victims can affect the severity of the punishment received by the defendant.

Method

 Participants

         A total of 332 participants were recruited for the jury study. There were 167 female participants present and 165 male participants present. The average age of the participants was 27.34. The method in which the participants were selected was a convenient sampling.

Materials and Procedure

         The participants were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions, each of which manipulated the social attractiveness of either the victim or the defendant. The crime was described the same throughout each condition. John Sander was driving home from an annual Christmas office party on the evening of December 24 when his automobile struck and killed a pedestrian by the name of Martin Lowe.  The circumstances leading to this event were as follows:  The employees of the insurance office where Sander worked began to party at around 2:00 P.M. on the afternoon of the 24th.  By 5:00 P.M. some people were already leaving for home, although many continued to drink and socialize.  Sander, who by this time had had several drinks, was offered a lift home by a friend who did not drink and who suggested that Sander leave his car at the office and pick it up when he was in “better shape”.  Sander declined the offer, claiming he was “stone sober” and would manage fine.  By the time Sander had finished another drink, the party was beginning to break up.  Sander left the office building and walked to the garage where he had parked his car, a four door 1995 Chevrolet.  It had just started to snow.  He wished the garage attendant a Merry Christmas and pulled out into the street.  Traffic was very heavy at the time.  Sander was six blocks from the garage when he was stopped by a policeman for reckless driving.  It was quite apparent to the officer that Sander had been drinking, but rather than give him a ticket on Christmas Eve, he said that he would let Sander off if he would promise to leave his car and take a taxi.  Sander agreed.  The officer hailed a taxi and Sander got into it.  The minute the taxi had turned a corner, however, Sander told the driver to pull over to the curb and let him out.  Sander paid the driver and started back to where he had parked his own car.  Upon reaching his car he proceeded to start it up and drove off.

         He had driven four blocks from the street where the police officer had stopped him when he ran a red light and struck Lowe, who was crossing the street.  Sander immediately stopped the car.  Lowe died a few minutes later on the way to the hospital.  It was later ascertained that internal hemorrhaging was the cause of death.  Sander was apprehended and charged with negligent homicide. The police medical examiner’s report indicated that Sander’s estimated blood alcohol concentration was between 2.5 and 3.0% at the time of the accident.

         The social attractiveness of the victim was one factor being manipulated. For the socially unattractive victim conditions, Lowe was portrayed as a notorious gangster and syndicate boss who had been vying for power in the syndicate controlling the state’s underworld activities.  He was best known for his alleged responsibility in the Riverview massacre of five men.  At the time of the incident, Lowe was carrying a loaded 32-caliber pistol which was found on his body.  He had been out of jail on bond, awaiting trial on a double indictment of mail fraud and income tax evasion. For the socially attractive victim condition, Lowe is a noted architect and prominent member of the community.  He had designed many well-known buildings throughout the state and was an active member of the community welfare board.  At the time of the incident, Lowe was on his way to the Lincoln Orphanage, of which he was a founding member, with Christmas gifts.  He is survived by his wife and two children, ages 11 and 15.

         The defendant’s social attractiveness was also a variable that was manipulated as well. For the socially unattractive defendant condition, Sander is a thirty-three-year-old janitor.  In the building where Sander has been working as a janitor for the past two months, he was not known by many of the firm employees but was nevertheless invited to join the party.  Sander is a two-time divorcee, with three children by his first wife, who has since remarried.  He was going to spend Christmas Eve with his girlfriend in her apartment.  The effect of the incident on Sander was negligible; he was slightly shaken up by the impact but suffered no major injuries.  Sander has two misdemeanors on his criminal record in the past five years – breaking and entering and a drug violation.  His traffic record shows three tickets in the same space of time. For the socially attractive defendant condition, Sander is a sixty-four-year-old insurance adjustor who had been employed by the same insurance firm for 42 years.  Sander was friendly with everyone and was known as a good worker.  Sander is a widower, his wife having died of cancer the previous year, and he is, consequently, spending Christmas Eve with his son and daughter-in-law.  When the incident occurred, Sander’s leg banged the steering column, reaggravating a gun wound which had been the source of a slight limp and much pain.  Sander’s traffic record shows he has received three tickets in the past five years, two of which were moving violations.

         After reading the description, the participants were then asked to give the defendant a sentence from 1 to 25 years in prison. The participants were then asked to rate the defendant and victim based on the impression they got from the condition given to them, rating them from 1 (extremely favorable) to 9 (extremely unfavorable). After giving the defendant a sentence length and rating both the defendant and victim, the participants were asked to self-report their gender (either male or female) and their age. The participants were then given a debriefing statement after they completed everything asked of them. The debriefing statement explained to the participants that the researchers were trying to determine the effect of likeability of a defendant and victim had on the sentence length of the defendant.

Results

Manipulation Checks

The results indicated that the favorability of the victim was different based on how the victim was described in each condition T (334) = 12.363, p < 0.001. The socially attractive victim was rated more favorably (M=7.06, SD=2.39) than the socially unattractive victim (M= 3.77, SD=2.49). This in turn emphasizes that the manipulation check for the victim was supported. The likeability of the defendant also differed due to how the defendant was portrayed in the condition, T (334) = 3.403 p < 0.001. The socially attractive defendant’s ratings was more favorable (M=4.23, SD=2.37) than the socially unattractive defendant’s ratings (M=3.43, SD=1.93). This in turn illustrates that the manipulation check for the defendant was supported as well.

Length of Sentence

The length of sentence given to the defendant showed a difference based on the social attractiveness of the victim F (1,332) = 9.45, p < 0.002. For the socially attractive victim, the sentence given to the defendant was longer (M=17.09, SD=7.82) than the sentence given to the defendant with the socially unattractive victim (M=14.22, SD=8.09). Due to these results, my hypothesis that the social attractiveness of the victim can influence the length of the sentence for the defendant is supported. The length of the sentence given to the defendant also differed when the social attractiveness of the defendant himself was manipulated, F (1,332) = 5.482, p < 0.20. For the socially unattractive defendant, there was a longer sentence given (M=16.75, SD=7.83) compared to the socially attractive defendant (M=14.41, SD=8.18). This in turn shows that my hypothesis that the length of the sentence given to the defendant is influenced by the social attractiveness of the defendant, is supported. Lastly, the social attractiveness of the victim did not interact with the social attractiveness of the defendant, F < 1, n.s.

Discussion

There are many inferences on the effect of social attractiveness of the defendant on the sentence length given to the defendant. The hypothesis that sentence length was influenced by the social attractiveness of the victim and defendant was supported by the significant results of the study. These findings are consistent with the study conducted by Nemeth and Sosis (1973) which also found that social attractiveness of the defendant played a significant role in the length of sentence given to the defendant. Nemeth and Sosis (1973) theorized that the participants may perceive that the socially attractive defendant may feel remorse for the crime they committed and that alone is already punishment for the defendant. This in turn influences the participants to give the defendant a more lenient punishment because they believe that the defendant has already been punished with his remorse. This is emphasized in the current study, where the socially attractive defendant received a less harsh sentence length than the socially unattractive defendant. In addition to this, the findings from the present study are consistent with the results found in Landy and Aronson (1969). Furthermore, Landy and Aronson (1969) theorized that the reason subjects were more lenient on the neutral and socially attractive defendants is because they could identify with the neutral and socially attractive defendant more easily than the socially unattractive defendants. The participants could more easily imagine themselves in the same situation when the defendant was neutral or socially attractive because they had more in common than the socially unattractive defendant. This differs from the socially unattractive defendant however, which correlated with a harsher sentence length. Nemeth and Sosis (1973) theorized that this harsher sentence length is due to the participants’ assumption that the socially unattractive defendant has a greater drinking habit than the socially attractive defendant. This is due to the negative stereotypes that stem from the undesirable qualities associated with how the socially unattractive defendant was described. This in turn possibly led the participants to feel no sympathy for the defendant and give him a harsher sentence length.

 The hypothesis that sentence length of the defendant was influenced by the social attractiveness of the victim was also supported by the significant results of the study. The results are also consistent with the findings of a study conducted by Landy & Aronson (1969) which found that participants who had the victim described as socially attractive gave the defendant a harsher sentence length. There are many inferences on the effect of social attractiveness of the victim and the length of sentence given to the defendant. Possible reasons for the social attractiveness of the victim influencing the length of the sentence given to the defendant could be the perception that the social attractive victim was a great contributor to society and the community. This in turn makes the loss of the victim much more impactful, and as a result the punishment for the defendant is much harsher than it would be for the socially unattractive victim. This reason is supported by Landy and Aronson (1969) who theorized that when the victim was portrayed as a socially attractive person, the participants perceived the crime as being more serious. Furthermore, Landy and Aronson (1969) also theorized that when the victim is socially attractive, the participants view the defendant as being more socially unattractive, which in turn influences the length of sentence given to the defendant. This theory is also supported by Green, Koehring, and Quiat (1998), who suggested that the jurors felt more compassion for the victims’ family when the victim was portrayed as socially attractive and believed that the emotional impact was greater. This in turn led the jurors to rate the crime as more serious. This however differs from the sentence length given to the defendant when the victim was portrayed as socially unattractive. Possible reasoning for this could be the participants view the socially unattractive victim as someone who has made no beneficial contributions to the community and society as a whole, and because of this, the crime is not as serious as it would be if the victim was socially attractive.

However, there are potential limitations to this study that could impact the effect of the independent variable on the dependent variable. One possible threat to construct validity is the potential motives of the participants. The participants may be curious what the study is researching and may try to behave how they are “supposed to”, also called the cooperative subject role. This in turn could also result in the participants wanting to portray themselves in a positive self-representation. For example: perhaps the participants thought if they gave the defendants a certain length of a sentence and rated the favorability of the victim and defendant a particular way, they would be represented in a more positive manner. Another possible threat to the experiment’s construct validity is the biosocial attributes of the researcher. This is due to the fact that the researcher was about the same age as the participants, which in turn could have affected how serious the participants took the experiment compared to if the participants were asked by an older researcher or a researcher that holds more authority. Because the study utilized random assignment and controlled any extraneous variables, there is no indication of any threats to internal validity that could have affected the results of the study. Furthermore, because of the utilization of random assignment, there are no possible threats to the study’s external validity, more specifically its population validity. This in turn allows the study to be generalized from the sample to the overall population.

         A possible gateway into future studies based on the present research is to see if there is a possible relationship between socio-economic status and social attractiveness. Research into this relationship could then grow into seeing whether the socio-economic status of the victim and the defendant plays a role in the favorability of both individuals as well as the length of sentence given to the defendant. Future studies should also utilize a professor or someone with a more authoritative presence to administer the study to eliminate the biosocial attribute threat to construct validity experienced in the present study.

 References

  • Alicke, M. D., & Zell, E. (2009). Social Attractiveness and Blame. Journal of Applied Social        Psychology,39(9), 2089-2105. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  • Greene, E., Koehring, H., & Quiat, M. (1998). Victim impact evidence in capital cases: Does the victim’s character matter? Journal of Applied Social Psychology,28(2), 145-156.   Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  • Griffitt, W., & Jackson, T. (1973). Simulated jury decisions: The influence of jury-defendant   attitude similarity-dissimilarity. Social Behavior and Personality, 1(1), 1-7.
  • Jones, C., & Aronson, E. (1973). Attribution of Fault To A Rape Victim as A Function of         Respectability of the Victim. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,26(3), 415-419. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  • Landy, D., & Aronson, E. (1969). The influence of the character of the criminal and his victim on the decisions of simulated jurors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,5(2),  141-152. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  • McKillip, J., & Posavac, E. J. (1975). Judgments of responsibility for an accident. Journal of    Personality, 43(2), 248–265.
  • Nemeth, C., & Sosis, R. (1973). A simulated jury study; Characteristics of the defendant and the jurors. The Journal of Social Psychology,90(2), 221-229. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
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