By Steven G. Mehta

There is a common feeling amongst trial lawyers that the first moments of a trial are often the most important. Indeed, there is research that shows that the jury has made its mind up in voir dire. Well new research suggests that people make decisions very quickly and often those decisions are not on the merits; but instead on other superficial factors.

According to researchers Christopher Olivola from University College London and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University, voters’ choices are heavily influenced by superficial, nonverbal cues, such as politicians’ appearance. People such as voters (or in trials, a jury) make decisions about candidates’ (or parties’) competence based on their facial appearance. The researchers were able to reliably predict outcomes of votes based on facial appearances of the participants.

The researchers also addressed the fact that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television. In essence the researchers discussed that because voters (or the case of a jury, the jurors) need to navigate their way through volumes of information about the candidate or the party, it is not surprising that they take unconscious “mental shortcuts” to make their final decision.

Based on a computer model, the researchers were able to manipulate the appearance of candidates, which affected the votes regarding competence. They found that facial maturity and physical attractiveness are the two main criteria used by participants to make competence judgments.

Olivola and Todorov explained that “Getting people to overcome the influence of first impressions will not be an easy task. The speed, automaticity, and implicit nature of appearance-based trait inferences make them particularly hard to correct. Moreover, often people don’t even recognize that they are forming judgments about others from their appearances.”

This research could be very helpful in understanding how juries may make their decisions. Just like voters, the jury has a huge amount of information to sift through in order to make its decision. There are already studies that show that the more attractive a person is the more likely that the jury will vote for that person. Moreover, studies have also shown that the more attractive people get higher verdicts.

In that light it is also helpful to explain this process to a party during mediation. The more that the parties realize that the trial process is less about the merits and more about a beauty contest, the more likely they will not want a jury to make the final decision regarding the supposed merits. Story Source:

Journal Reference:

  1. Christopher Y. Olivola, Alexander Todorov. Elected in 100 milliseconds: Appearance-Based Trait Inferences and Voting. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 2010; 34 (2): 83 DOI: 10.1007/s10919-009-0082-1