Friday, 21 January 2011

Facial discrimination: are we all secretly faceist?

Until I saw his photograph I felt a bit sorry for Edward Woollard. The 18 year-old college student, pictured below, was recently sentenced to 32 months imprisonment for throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of the Tory HQ building, during the protest about university tuition fees.

I doubt he deliberately meant to cause anyone harm. More likely he was caught up in the excitement of the moment and acted not out of malice but extreme stupidity. His actions could have resulted in the death of anyone unlucky enough to be standing directly below, but fortunately the extinguisher landed without causing injury.

Now he faces a prison sentence, which could potentially affect him for the rest of his life, and I did wonder if a custodial sentence really was the best way to deal with the situation or whether he was made a scapegoat by a Government keen to assert its authority?

Anyway, I digress. As I said, I felt sorry for him. That is, until I saw his photograph; then I started to think maybe he had got what he deserved. It was his disconnected glare from those sinister looking eyes that did it; and his unruly curly mullet certainly didn’t help matters. He looked evil.

This got me thinking. What is it about the faces and features of some people that can make one person dislike, fear or suspect another without reason? Is it instinct, a throwback from our days as hunter-gathers, when we needed to decipher friend or foe in a split second? Or maybe we subconsciously pick up on certain ‘looks’ that we deem to be right or wrong, from the millions of images we are exposed to every day in the media? 

Todorov and Oosterhof, scientists at Princeton University, have been researching what it is about people's faces that cause people to fear or trust them and have even come up with a computer programme that allows them to analyse this. Todorov says, "Humans seem to be wired to look to faces to understand the person's intentions... People are always asking themselves, 'Does this person have good or bad intentions?'"

Take for example Chris Jeffries, pictured above, the landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates, who was recently brought in by police for questioning. Even without reading the story I took one look at his face and the voice inside my head screamed HE’S GUILTY. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one but as it turns out, he was released without any charge.

Was Maxine Carr, pictured below, really an innocent, naïve victim of Ian Huntley or was there something more sinister at play? Who knows, and maybe we never will, but I know what my gut says and I am convinced it is because of her face why I feel that way.

For me it is the dead-behind-the-eyes look that cause alarm bells to start ringing and a send a shiver running down my spine. 

For Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist, it was hard shifty eyes, high cheekbones, upturned or twisted noses and unusual shaped ears. In his 1876 book ‘The Criminal Man’, Cesare said, “…one has to conclude that while offenders may not look fierce, there is nearly always something strange about their appearance. It can even be said that each type of crime is committed by men with particular physiognomic characteristics.”

That was nearly 140 years ago and Lombroso's work is now considered to be outdated. People may no longer consciously associate shifty eyes with a tendency to commit a crime, but that's not to say we don't make decisions each day based on our reactions to peoples faces. 

If I had never heard of Chris Jeffries or Maxine Carr and they turned up for a job interview, would I give them a job? Or would I subconsciously write them off because of an illogical reaction to their faces? I like to think I am a logical and rational person so would hope not. But can we ever be sure? Are we all secretly faceist, and if so, is there anything we can do about it?

What do you think?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this by searching for facial discrimination but meant to type in racia discrimination. Anyway interesting article. I don't know who the guy is with the grey hair but I agree he does look evil.

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