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Abwender and Kenyatta (2001) assert that the halo effect is an example of cognitive bias, whereby the traits of an individual affect another trait of that individual. The halo effect is presumed to be a common phenomenon among people who are physically attractive through the assumption that they are likely to have social traits that are pleasing, live happier lives and are likely to be more successful than people who are physically unattractive (Ahola & Christianson, 2009). Abwender and Kenyatta (2001) further assert that a large body of literature suggests that defendants, who are physically unattractive, are usually disadvantaged in terms of the likelihood of being considered guilty and the severity of the sentence, an observation that has been used to explain the concept of halo effect. Conventionally, researchers have concluded that the trend of treating physically attractive defendants in a more compassionate manner is because of the belief that physically attractive persons have desirable social traits is based on the assumption that “what is beautiful is good”. A meta-analytic review conducted by Beckham et al (2007) indicated that defendants, who are physically attractive, get a compassionate treatment, because juries perceive them as being more likeable; as a result, they are treated more leniently than defendants who are not physically attractive (Anderson, 1978).

Numerous studies have affirmed the halo effect operating in the case of jurors. Research has pointed out that socially pleasing traits increase the likelihood of physically attractive receiving less sentencing and even reduces their likelihood of being found guilty. A study conducted byEfran (1974) concluded that the subjects were more generous when issuing sentences to physically attractive individuals than people who are physically unattractive, even in cases of involvement in similar crimes. One of the primary reasons for this tendency is because of the perception that people, who are more physically attractive, tend to have a brighter future because of the socially pleasing traits that they are presumed to possess (Beckham, Spray, & Pietz, 2007). A 1941 study by Monahan on social workers revealed that most of the social workers experienced difficulty in pressing guilty charges against physically attractive individuals (Kaplan, 1978).

When investigating the effects of interactions between physical attractiveness and juror gender, and between the racial background of the defender and judgment and sentencing, Abwender and Kenyatta (2001) reported that the unattractive female defendants received a more harsh treatment than the attractive female defendants, while the men depicted an opposite trend. Black participants received a more lenient treatment; the findings from the study were somewhat consistent with the predisposition that “what is beautiful is good” (Kristiansen & Zanna, 1991).

Despite the view that physically attractive defendants are more advantages than unattractive defendants, researchers have established that such advantages are only applicable in the specific crimes like rape and robbery. For the case of crime involving swindle and negligent homicide, defendants, who are physically attractive, usually receive harsh treatment basing on the perception that they are likely to use their physical attractiveness to initiate criminal activities. Nathan (1986) asserts that physically attractive persons are subjects to harsh treatments in cases where they do not live up to their expectations.

This research aims to explore the relationship effects of physical attractiveness between guilt and punishment (length of prison sentence) and the punishment outcomes. Using the review of the past studies, the following hypotheses were formulated.

  1. H0 (null hypothesis): There is no relation between attractiveness ratings and level of guilt, and no relation between the attractiveness ratings and length of the prison sentence.
  2. H1 (hypothesis): There is a relation between the attractiveness ratings and level of guilt, and a relation between attractiveness ratings and length of the prison sentence.

Methods

Research design

The study used a correlational design with the data collected from the participants using survey. The independent variable was level of physical attractiveness of defendant, while the dependent variable for the study was the level of guilt and the severity of the prison sentence.

Participants

The participants for this study comprised of 80 psychology and counseling students from the South London University as the part of their course requirement when undertaking the psychology course.

Materials

The materials used in this study were a survey based on a robbery scenario, and four photographs representing the defendants who have committed the robbery (see appendix I and II). The survey contained three questions. The first question asked the participants to determine the length of time that the defendant would serve in prison (in months). In the other two questions participants were asked to rate the level of guilt and level of attractiveness of the defendant on a scale from 1-7 (1 = ‘Not at all guilty’/‘Not at all attractive’, 4 =‘Moderately guilty’/ ‘Moderately attractive’, and 7 = ‘Extremely guilty’/‘Extremely attractive). The following are the photographs of the defendants and brief description of the content scenario. All the defendants took part in the robbery scenario.

Procedure

The participants were approached in their seminar at a lab setting. They were asked for their voluntary participation in the study and had the right to withdraw at any time, and that all the information gathered for the study will remain confidential and anonymous. They were given enough information to comprehend the basic aims of the experiment, but not enough to estimate the expected results. The participants were then given the survey and provided with verbal instructions by the tutor. There were various groups, and each group was given a different photograph of the defendants, yet they were not aware that the photograph given to them was different from the other groups.

After all the participants in the lab had finished the survey, the tutor informed them of the true aims of the experiment and that each group had a different photograph of the defendants to help them conduct the survey. The participants were reminded that they could withdraw their data. The briefing and debriefing processes were aimed to cover the ethical issues of the informed consent, protection of participants and confidentiality. The participants then entered the results individually into IBM SPSS Statistics program version 17.

Results

The relationship between the attractiveness ratings (M = 3.59, SD = 1.61) and the length of sentence (M = 35.70, SD = 19.88) was investigated in participants (n = 80) using the Pearson’s correlation. There was a strong significant negative correlation between the two variables, r (80) = -0.92, p<0.001

The same test was done separately for each defendant to check the relation and the results were: Defendant A (M = 5.30, SD = 1.38) and (M = 12.75, SD = 7.19), r(20)= -0.93, p <0.001, Defendant B (M = 1.75, SD = 0.716) and (M = 57.75, SD = 6.62), r(20) = -0.68, p <0.001, Defendant C  (M = 2.95, SD = 0.6048) and (M = 49.6, SD = 7.18), r(20) = -0.72, p <0.001, and Defendant D (M = 4.35, SD = 0.587) and (M = 22.7, SD = 6.99), r(20) = -0.76, p <0.001.

This means that the more attractive the defendant was, the lesser the length of the prison sentence.

The relationship between the attractiveness ratings (M = 3.59, SD = 1.61) and the level of guilt (M = 4.22, SD = 1.64) was investigated among the participants (n = 80) using the Pearson’s correlation. There was a strong significant negative correlation between the two variables r (80) = -0.88, p<0.001

The same test was done for each defendant separately to check the relation and the following results were obtained: Defendant A (M = 5.30, SD = 1.38) and (M = 2.85, SD = 1.225), r(20)= 0.90, p< 0.001, Defendant B (M = 1.75, SD = 0.716) and (M = 5.85, SD = 0.875), r(20) = 0.30, p > 0.001, Defendant C (M = 2.95, SD = 0.6048) and (M = 5.05, SD = 1.19), r(20) = 0.65, p> 0.001, and Defendant D (M = 4.35, SD = 0.587) and (M = 3.15, SD = 0.875), r(20) = 0.52, p>0.001.

This means that the more attractive the defendants are, the less guilt they were rated.

It is arguably evident that the results support the hypothesis formulated for this research that there is a relation between the attractiveness ratings and level of guilt, and a relation between the attractiveness ratings and length of the prison sentence.

Discussion

The findings from this study offer support to the hypothesis (H1), this is because the rating of attractiveness for the defendants influenced the length of the prison sentences assigned to the defendants by the participants. The findings are somewhat consistent with the hypothesis that “what is beautiful is good”; as a result, people perceived as to more physically attractive, received less severe prison sentences and punishment outcomes than individuals who are perceived to be physically unattractive (Nathan, 1986). A strong significant negative correlation between the variables in this study serves to affirm the hypothesis formulated in the sense that the more attractive defendant received less prison sentences and a relatively lower level of perceived guilt that defendants who were deemed physically unattractive.

The findings are consistent with the meta-analytic review conducted by Beckham et al (2007), which pointed out that defendants, who are physically attractive, get a compassionate treatment, because juries perceive them as being more likeable; as a result, they are treated more leniently than defendants who are not physically attractive. Therefore, the findings from this study serve to affirm the existing literature on the topic by establishing that the physical attractiveness of defendants has an effect on guilt and punishment outcomes. The negative correlation between the level of attractiveness and the level of guilt and punishment outcomes is consistent with Efran (1974), which concluded that the subjects were more generous when issuing sentences to physically attractive individuals than people who are physically unattractive, even in cases of the involvement in similar crimes.

The limitation associated with this study is that the defendants were not allocated specific crimes, and that the study was done within the limits of student perception, which may not be true indication of the real life jury scenario. The ecological validity of the experiment is a significant point of weakness and can alter the results, if the study was to be conducted in an ideal criminal justice system. In addition, the participants for the study were relatively few for obtaining accurate results (Landy & Sigall, 1974). A comparative analysis of the same punishment and guilt assessment from the subject could have been an effective approach to analyze the effects of the physical attractiveness on the level of guilt and punishment outcomes. In order to enhance the accuracy of the results, a larger sample comprising of people from diverse racial backgrounds and gender orientation should be taken into consideration. In addition, classification of crimes should be taken into consideration as a measure for controlling the effects of the crime types on the level of guilt and punishment outcomes. In addition, further research should ascertain the effects of expectations associated with physical attractiveness on the level of guilt and prison sentences.

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