Gut instinct: We can identify criminals on sight...

April - posted on 04/08/2011 ( 14 moms have responded )




This anecdote prompted three Cornell researchers to reopen a "long and sordid" history of research and debate about whether we can determine who is a criminal by looking at his face.

Their finding: We can.

"In two experiments, subjects were able to distinguish between criminals and noncriminals by rating each photo we presented to them," said human development doctoral student Jeffrey Valla '12, first author of the study.

The researchers gathered head shots of Caucasian males, ages 20 to 29, put them all against a white background and controlled for attractiveness and display of facial emotion. Half were photos of convicts. The criminals were on their first conviction, had short hair and little to no facial hair. About half the criminals had been convicted of violent crimes (forcible rapes, murder, assault) and half for nonviolent crimes (forgery, theft, arson and drug dealing).

On a scale of one to seven, study participants rated how likely each man was to have committed a crime. If they thought a crime had been committed, they were asked to pick violent or nonviolent crimes and to specify which crime had taken place.

"We found a small but reliable effect," Valla said. "Subjects rated the criminal photos as significantly more likely to have committed a crime than noncriminals."

But the participants could not distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders, and women subjects had more trouble correctly identifying rapists than men.

"We speculate that part of the reason why rapists might be successful is that they may purposefully make themselves appear to be nonthreatening to gain access to their victims," Valla said.

The researchers also found that after the experiment, subjects who said they "knew" which photos were police mug shots were worse at picking criminals than those who said they didn't know the photos' origin.

"We wanted to explore this without any preconceptions whether people can distinguish criminals from noncriminals, if there is a difference in appearance between criminals and noncriminals, and whether it's inherent or whether it's gained through experience -- the so-called Dorian Gray effect, in which you come to wear your experiences on your face," Valla said. "I'm not saying that's what people are picking out in the criminal photos, but it's one possibility."

Valla said some people react with aversion when he describes the experiments, in part because it smacks of data abused by adherents of such discredited theories as Social Darwinism, eugenics, phrenology and the "born criminal" -- a "subhuman species" with drooping eyes, large ears, protruding jaw and flat nose -- which led to the sterilization of criminals.

Should we trust our intuition about people?

"If you're walking down the street and see someone who looks sinister, and you don't have to engage with him, are you going to give him the benefit of the doubt? Ideally, yes. But our study participants were more likely to err on the side of thinking someone was a criminal than not. Perhaps our reptilian brain is a little less ready to take such a risk," he said.

Provided by Cornell University

Do you think we are able to tell whether someone is a criminal or not, just by looking at them? What's your opinions on this?


Mrs. - posted on 04/09/2011




I think some people can tell. Some people have a very strong sense of other's overall deal or a lot of life experience that has taught them what to look for. Then there are those who have both - my father is one of them. I never doubt it when he tells me to watch myself around a new person in my life. It might take a few years for those true colours to show...but they always do.

I think I'm alright at it. However, I'm a better safe than sorry when it comes to strangers. I'm also weary to trust people unless they've given me a reason to do so.

Nikki - posted on 04/09/2011




While logically I agree with Tracey's post, another part of me agrees with some principles of the study.

I have always had a strong intuition about people and it has always led me in the right direction. I know instantly upon meeting somebody if I will like them, if I can trust them, to be cautious of them etc. It's hard to explain unless you experience it yourself, I just get a feeling about people. It sounds weird I know.

Sneaky - posted on 04/09/2011




Nope. Well . . lets clarify that - I would rather be suspicious of EVERYONE no matter how they looked or how 'nice' they were.

I would like to actually read the parameters of the study done - for instance, did the photos of the non-criminals also have short hair? Were they taken in a mug shot setting, or were they more relaxed shots?

I also hate this kind of research because it makes people feel 'safe' - "oh, he doesn't look like a serial killer, I'll just let him help me with my flat tire . . ". So I have to disagree just on general principles.


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Jessica - posted on 04/10/2011




This is a very interesting subject/area of research. I definitely believe in instinct and "gut feelings" being right about people. But, I think it can be a dangreous road to go down to imply that EVERYBODY is able to tell a murderer or rapist just by looking at them. Its just too subjective of an ability, sometimes it will be right and sometimes it will be wrong. I know for me, sometimes what I think is instinct or a gut feeling turns out to be my own paranoia.

It does make me wonder though because I recently had an encounter where all alarms and red flags were set off, it was a very strong feeling, and I never usually get such strong feelings about people right off the bat. But it was actually last week when I took my 2 month old for his well check visit. We go to a rather large pediatrician practice but always get the same doc and I like her. I don't know why, but this time we got a doctor I had never met before. I don't know what it was, but I instantly did not like him- at all. The minute he walked in the room my hair stood on end and he just gave me the creeps. I did not want him touching my baby, like I had to stop myself from reaching out and grabbing him so that he wouldn't touch him. It turns out, the guy ended up being an asshole, but my dislike of him went deeper than that and started befor ehe even opened his mouth.

I mean, who knows. On one hand, maybe my mama bear instincts are right and he's a creepy pedophile or something. Or, maybe there was something going on in my subconcious that triggered my negative feelings- maybe something about the way he looked reminded me of someone I knew once who I disliked, maybe I have something against male pediatricians stemming from a negative experience I had with a doctor as a child and this guy happened to trigger a subconcious memory. Its hard to say.

Emily - posted on 04/10/2011




I know from experience that you can tell a LOT about people from a photograph. In fact, you can tell more about their general personality with a photo than you can seeing them in person. (However, for a "what is he thinking right now", you need to see them in person.) You can tell whether a person is good or bad, friendly or not, nice or not, proud, humble, arrogant, pushy, angry, disrespectful, caring, dangerous, egotistical, needy, benevolent, and so on. Much, if not most, is in their eyes, but it is also in the rest of their faces; in the muscles surrounding their eyes and mouths. You can even differentiate between the person they project to the world, and the person they are underneath it all - by the differences between the left and right halves of their faces. It is amazing, the amount of information we project to the world. Clothing, hygiene, and appearances in general mean little. The truth is written all over your face.

Not everyone can read it though. I think the "reader" has to be observant, deeply intuitive, and have enough experience with people to have developed an extensive bank of information. I believe that if people knew how much some of us can tell about them, many would go out in public, masked. (And yes, it is a bit creepy.)

Lady Heather - posted on 04/10/2011




I get a vibe from people. It's not an appearance thing. It's just...a vibe. I have no way of explaining it. I remember walking past a guy on the street a couple of months ago. I just knew he was bad. I had the feeling that if we were alone in a park instead of walking down a busy street, I'd be in trouble. He was just bad. And he looked otherwise normal and wasn't dressed poorly or anything. There are also two men hanging around my neighbourhood right now that I know are criminals. They're probably drug dealers and/or pimps, but it's not like I have any proof of that so I can't do anything about it. I just make sure they know I know they are there.

I figure if my gut tells me someone is bad, I'm going to listen to it. My gut instincts have yet to be wrong about anything. That doesn't mean I would take unnecessary risks with someone who didn't seem bad. I would just put extra effort into avoiding or reporting those that do.

[deleted account]

Just to say.I was asked by friends to take a computer test.You had to say yes or no to a group of pictures, as to who you felt was a sexual predater.I clicked on the faces as i went through each one as to how i felt, just looking at the picture.I got one wrong.It was a beautiful woman who looked like a tv host we have in our country.I thought it was put in there to throw people off.No it wasn't the TV host lol... it was a known predator.So i agree with Nikki S, you can tell from just pictures.

[deleted account]

I have always seen it in the eyes..i knew many will find that odd.Its just how i am.I don't like to judge a book by its cover.I think its wise to always listen to what you feel.As i said i have never been wrong.On many occasions.I have had others say to me"how did you know" i really do not know.Its a feeling i get.Many its just based on there eyes.The tell a story.I am going to sound off my rocker but thats how i funny becuse i can't speak to people with shades on if i don't really knew them well.I have to see the persons eyes.

Sometimes i have been fooled, i have a feeling but the persons actions does not match how i felt about them at first.I find out down the line, i was right..peoples true colours always show no matter how hard the try to hide them by being all nice etc.

Nikki - posted on 04/09/2011




Your right April and Tracey, but I can also tell from some photo's of people. Some just pop out as being people I would or wouldn't like, people I couldn't trust etc. I do try to give people the benefit of a doubt especially if I only get a little negative feeling about them, but I haven't been wrong very often.

April - posted on 04/09/2011




I don't like the idea of judging someone by their appearance on whether they are a criminal or not, you might meet a man who looks like a rapist in your eyes and he turns out to be the sweetest man you'll ever meet but then again maybe not. Either way i don't think i can rely on looks to determine whether someone is a criminal.

Gut instincts? Vibes? Then yes, i always trust my intuition, i find that 8/10 times i'm right. They may not necessarily behave in a manner that will make me believe that they are "bad guys or girls", it's usually just an alarm that goes off in my head that tells me someone is bad news.

I always try to give someone the benefit of the doubt if i'm meeting them for the first time and see how i feel afterwards but as i said most of he time i just know.

Sneaky - posted on 04/09/2011




BUT what you are all talking about is gut-feelings, intuition and vibes! And no, that doesn't sound weird to me - I believe in it completely, BUT none of it is based solely on a persons face, it includes the way that we consciously or subconsciously pick up on other peoples body language (e.g. someone is smiling at you and saying nice things, but their hands are fisted - it's called emotional leakage), or their tone of voice or even their actions (like looking dodgy but helping an old lady across the road). I have two examples;

One, I was offered a job interview for the BEST job in the world - seriously, low hours, own hours, potentially high commission. Drive to the interview building, it's in an area of town that has just been oped up for development so on one side of the road there are two office building, on the other side are two apartment buildings. The interview address was in one of the apartment buildings which made me a bit confused but I still got out of my car and walked to the building. I rang the intercom button and in that moment all my fight/flight mechanisms went off - the job was TOO good to be true, I was going to an interview in a private apartment - if this guy could afford to pay good commissions why couldn't he afford an office in an office building were there would be witnesses?? And since I was going for an 'interview' I would be in the position of being in a 'compliant' or 'weak' position (e.g. expected to be on my best behaviour and not make a scene that would 'lose' me a job). I could NOT do it. I felt physically sick, went back to my car and rang to cancel the appointment. And in that instance I NEVER saw any ones face!

Example two comes from a book I was recently reading about sexual predators. The author describes a study in which nurses were shown a video - half watched a beautiful field of flowers, the other half were shown video of gruesome amputations. All the nurses were instructed to watch and behave as if they were seeing a beautiful field of flowers. The nurses were taped and then a sample of 'average' people were shown photographs or tape of the nurses and asked to identify who was watching the flowers and who was watching an amputation. The participants who were only shown photos or video of the nurses faces did not identify who was watching the flowers more than the normal rate of chance (e.g. about 50% of the time they were right). The participants that saw photos or video of the whole nurse (face and body) or just body were right more than 70% of the time. My point? That study suggested that only looking at someones face can not tell you what they are thinking, people 'lie' with their faces all the time and that is why I would like to know the parameters of the study - if all the criminal photos were mug-shoots and all the non-criminals were not, that would certainly make a difference to the results!

As I got to think about this all night too, it occurred to me that this really does seem like some sort of facial phrenology. If you want to know more about phrenology here is a website:

[deleted account]

Yes i believe you can.I believe people send out vibes.I can pick up on them.
I have a friend.She meet a man.She asked me what do i think about him.I told her my honest opinion.I told her, soemthing does not sit well with me.She was with him 3 years and i always felt the same.I found out a few mths ago they broke up.He was a control freak and emotionally abusive.He and his brother were known to the police.In my country and there home country.
I can pick up peoples vibes.I also get them walking by others.Some give me the shivers big time.I always trust my intuition.Its never let me down so far.:-)

Desiree - posted on 04/09/2011




Every single time I have gone against my "gut Feel" I have regretted it, and badly. Now I don't go against it ever.

A couple of years ago I went to see some clients with a sales Rep. I ended up spending the whole day with him and when I came away from the day I knew something was wrong, I can't tell you if it was in what he said or something he did, just something didn't fit well. A couple of weeks Later I had to work in on a Saturday and I asked one of the managers if he would be in the building because there was no way I wanted to be left alone in the building with the sales rep. ( Mind you he is god fearing and a reborn Christian just something didn't feel right) I got a call a couple days later from his wife to tell me that they were divorcing and the reason was because he was playing around with her under age daughter(his step daughter). Further things came to light that made me realise just how close I came to being in very serious trouble and if it wasn't for the fact that I was the bosses daughter who knows what would have happened. So yes I believe we do pick up on things but it isn't just the looks its something more.

Sarah - posted on 04/09/2011




It's a tough one, I don't think you can judge solely on appearances really.

For example, I was walking home once, and there was this REALLY dodgy looking bloke. I was trying to keep well behind him, but then there was a little old lady trying to cross the road and he went straight over and helped her cross the road!

I think it all depends on the situation too........I mean if there's some bloke loitering down a dark alleyway......I'm gonna think the worst no matter what he looks like!

I like to think I'm good judge of character, but I wouldn't rely on it 100%.

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