I [Grant] discovered recently that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the hilarious movie about two con-men competing to swindle a rich heiress, was released on December 14th, 31 years ago. You may recall the premise of the movie: A dashing and debonair swindler, played by Michael Caine, gets into a winner-takes-all swindling battle for an heiress’s money with a low-level con-man, played by Steve Martin. [Spoilers ahead! Skip to the next paragraph and then proceed to Netflix.] In a terminating twist, the lovely heiress, played by Glenne Headly, swindles them both. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (MGM Studios 1988).
The movie’s con-men, played by physically attractive Hollywood stars, are an exemplary backdrop to answer this month’s cognitive question: Does the attractiveness or unattractiveness of a swindler affect how a police officer would choose to blame and punish them? For instance, would a male or female police officer treat, say, an attractive male swindler the same way they would treat an unattractive male swindler? These interesting questions, and more, were tested by researchers Mally Shechory-Bitton and Lisa Zvi in a study published last year. Mally Shechory-Bitton & Lisa Zvi, Chivalry and Attractiveness Bias in Police Officer Forensic Judgments in Israel, 159 The Journal of Social Psychology, no. 5, 2018, at 503, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2018.1509043
Lawyers likely have varying views of how an accused’s physical attractiveness may impact his or her case. The idea that one’s attractiveness or unattractiveness can affect other’s judgments about them is part of a well-known cognitive bias called the “halo effect.” As a refresher, the halo effect is a cognitive short-cut in which a particular characteristic—usual a positive trait—is irrelevantly extended to other judgments one might make about the person “wearing” the halo. Thus, it seems most lawyers believe that the glowing halo of an attractive defendant might extend to a judgment of lower culpability or a reduced sentence. Indeed, the authors of this study cite multiple studies bearing out the truth that the most-attractive criminals among us might benefit from their looks in ways the system never intended. See generally, Id.
For this experiment, the authors crafted a story vignette in which the swindle was the same but the authors could swap in-and-out attractive and unattractive swindlers and attractive and unattractive marks. Id. at 506. The vignettes were accompanied by photos of men and women who would serve as the fictitious swindlers and marks. Each male and female photo had been thoroughly tested through survey groups to objectively categorize each swindler and mark as attractive or unattractive. Id. at 506, 507. The vignettes were given to a few hundred male and female police officers and a few hundred male and female college students who served as a control group. Each respondent was asked to assign a level of culpability to the swindler and the mark, and then asked to assign a particular sentence to each swindler on a spectrum of high-culpability imprisonment to low-culpability therapy or rehabilitation. Id. at 507.
The prevailing wisdom of the halo effect, as it relates to the more pulchritudinous among us, is that they benefit from their good looks without much hindrance. However, the study revealed quite the opposite when it came to the more dashing and lovely swindlers. Say the authors, “In contrast to the attractiveness bias (citations omitted) the advantage of good looks, which serves good looking offenders well in other types of offences, disappears and might be unhelpful when appearance is used as part of a crime.” Id. at 513 (emphasis added). The squeezing choke of the attractiveness halo appears to be that looks are a criminal asset only when they are not also used as a tool for evil! None of which bodes well, it seems, for our dirty, rotten scoundrels.