A Georgia State University scientist has found in a new study that people tend to falsely identify black men in pictures as criminals, giving new insight as to the reliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials.
Heather Kleider, associate professor of psychology, found that study subjects were more likely to associate criminality with faces showing stereotypically “black features” – nose and lip shape, for example.
The study was recently published in the Memory & Cognition.
In performing the study, the study team showed people faces of black men that varied in the level of stereotypically black features they engendered. These faces were presented to study participants grouped by profession, as either artists, waiters, professors or drug dealers.
“People memorized the faces associated with a particular profession and then later, tried to assign the faces to the correct group” Kleider said. “What we found is that people who had stereotypical ‘black faces’ were misassigned to the drug dealer category regardless of the profession they were originally associated with while non-stereotypically black faces were missassigned to other categories even when they were originally presented as a drug dealer.”
The study suggests that there could be an underpinning to false identification, where a person could be falsely accused of murder or other crime based in part on the type of facial features they possess, Kleider said.
“In a lot of my work, I find that eyewitnesses are not reliable for a plethora of reasons,” she said. “People have a bias when it comes to face judgment. They have an expectation of what a criminal looks like.”
Counteracting this effect would be difficult, Kleider said.
“That’s the tricky thing,” she explained. “I don’t know if there is a way to counteract this bias in judgment, because this expectation of black men as criminals has been embedded in our society through popular media. We can make people aware of this bias and hope that they will take the tendency into consideration when making judgments .
“It’s something we can’t change overnight but as a society we need to disassociate “looking like a criminal” from actual behavior, she added. “It should give people pause to think that you could put someone away for life when the only evidence is an eyewitness’ memory which includes inherent biases. There’s a lot of room for error.
The study is “Looking like a criminal: Stereotypical black facial features promote face source memory error,” Memory & Cognition, DOI 10.3758/s13421-012-0229-x.