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Thursday, January 17, 2013

New Juror Study Reveals Male Bias Against Obese Female Defendants

Some of you may have read about a recently released jury study conducted by researchers at Yale University. Articles about the study have been published in The Huffington Post, Slate, and the ABA Journal, to name just a few.

Using an insufficient-funds case, the researchers presented study participants with photographs of four defendants: a lean male and obese male, and a lean female and obese female. Researchers found that male jurors tended to judge obese female defendants as guiltier than lean female defendants.  The study, published in The International Journal of Obesity, is linked here: The influence of a defendant’s body weight on perceptions of guilt.

Here are some of the primary conclusions reached by the study:


The present study is the first, to our knowledge, to examine the impact of a defendant’s body weight on perceptions of guilt and culpability among simulated jurors. Male participants judged the obese female defendant as significantly guiltier than the lean female defendant. Additionally, the lean male participants believed the obese female defendant was more aware of insufficient funds (a criterion needed to find a defendant guilty of check fraud) as compared with the lean female defendant. They also viewed her as more likely to issue another fraudulent check in the future as compared with the lean female defendant. Differences between ratings of the obese female defendant and the lean female defendant were only observed among male participants; female respondents judged the two female defendants equally regardless of body weight. Thus, among female participants, the body weight of the female defendant did not bias perceptions of guilt or responsibility. There were no differences in assessment of guilt or culpability between the obese male and the lean male defendant among any of the participants. Thus, when the defendant was male, there was no impact of his weight status on perceptions of guilt or responsibility. . . .

The finding that weight bias may extend to the courtroom is concerning and signals the need for greater awareness and prevention of weight-based discrimination in legal settings. Although participants were not queried regarding the reason for t, it is notable that only female defendants were penalized for excess body weight. If in fact obese individuals are subject to discrimination while on trial, actions are needed to educate jurors about this form of bias and potentially eliminate biased jurors when the defendant is visibly obese."

I read the study this morning and found it fascinating, not only for its conclusions, but also for the ingenuity of the researchers and methodology of the study. In addition to this particular study, the article cites a number of other studies about juror bias on a number of different matters (here's another link to the study). I intend to spend some time over the next few weeks reviewing some of these studies, because I've added a voir dire component to my basic trial advocacy class for the first time.

I'd be interested to see what experiences readers of this blog have had with using jury-bias research during the jury selection process. I always find it interesting when science confirms biases or prejudices we suspect are real, and finds others we didn't even know about.

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