Thursday, January 10, 2013

Do juries hate fat, female defendants?

I saw this story on Slate and was curious. There are so many questions I have about how this study was done, what tweaks to the study could reveal, and what it really means. According to a team of Yale psychologists, the short story is that men are more likely to find fat women guilty than fit women. It boils down to fit, thin women being better perceived (especially by men) than overweight women. The study asked subjects to judge people on a charge of check fraud. The male subjects tended to find the fat women guilty, not the thin women.

So many questions. The headlines just blast that fat women need to watch out, 'cause men will find them guilty more often than not (when they're charged with the fairly lazy, non-labor-intensive crime of check fraud). And to the extent that this study reveals that men are likelier to assume that fat women are guilty of check fraud than are thin women, sure. It is disturbing to think that men are more willing to assume that fat women possess criminal intent than do thin women, at least as to this non-labor-intensive property crime. But I want the researchers to change the charged crime. As it stands, can we really assume that men generally assume fat women are guiltier than fit women? Or is that only when the crime involves stealing in a somewhat lazy way? I could understand some connection between a wrong assumption that fat women are lazy meaning they are connected to "lazy" crimes like check fraud. (As compared to a more active crime, like actual theft from a person or robbery, something that involves a physical confrontation.) Offensive as the perception that fat = lazy is, I do acknowledge that it exists. I wonder, then, if that's what this study is revealing, that people perceived as being lazy commit lazy crimes.

What if the charged crime isn't a property crime, a crime that doesn't involve any physical labor? Instead, what if the charged crime does involve some kind of physical work? Does the fat woman/thin woman bias still exist? What if the crime involves a person crime, like battery or murder? Are men still likelier to find a fat woman guilty than a thin woman? Or does the perception change, that a thin woman is likelier to commit a crime that involves some kind of physical activity? What if it's a drug crime? Child abuse? A sex crime? Or would the results be the same, no matter what the charged crime? Are men just big, dumb jerks who assume the worst about fat women while giving thin women the benefit of the doubt?*

I've no doubt that jurors engage in physical/racial/ethnic/gender stereotyping of defendants, at least to some degree, no matter what the charged crime. There's a reason all defense attorneys want to dress their clients up in nice clothes and have presentable family members in the courtroom. Perception matters. To the extent that this study reveals any trends, it's useful. But, man, there has to be a whole lot more we can divine.  So, researchers, get back to work. Tell me what other biases I need to be prepared to face from potential jurors. Because I haven't had a check fraud case in a long time.

*in the interest of full disclosure, men aren't my favorite people right now, so I can't quite dismiss the "men are just big, dumb jerks" theory. :) At least I acknowledge this bias in myself.


BellsforStacy said...

Wasn't there a study like ten years ago that fat people were the most universally bullied/discriminated group of folks? LIke even over miniorities? I could just google that I guess. But I think I remember that universally people though fat people were stupid.

S said...

That certainly sounds true. People feel free to think and say horrible things about fat people because there's a perception that being fat is truly a choice.

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