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Losing the beard in court may help some men appear more innocent

A successful criminal defense strategy often includes a number of important factors. In addition to carefully examining the facts of the case, it is often helpful to determine which aspects of the defendant's physical appearance are most likely to influence a jury, either positively or negatively.

Especially when it comes to criminal charges like rape, assault and other violent crimes, a defendant's courtroom appearance is closely yet subconsciously scrutinized by jurors. We have previously written about studies showing that defendants who wear glasses are more likely to be regarded as kind, intelligent and to be judged not guilty. This is sometimes referred to as the "nerd defense."

Earlier this year, two international researchers published the results of a study suggesting that men with beards may appear more threatening than clean-shaven men when making an angry face. Bearded men were viewed this way by women and by other men.

Researchers conducted the study by showing pictures of bearded men to study participants, as well as pictures of those same men while clean-shaven. The beards did not add to perceptions of sexual attractiveness, but they did make a man appear more threatening when he also wore an angry look on his face.

One of the study's authors explained: "Bearded men with angry facial expressions received significantly higher scores for aggressiveness compared with clean-shaven faces ... This suggests that the beard plays an important role in intermale signaling of threat and aggression."

Previous studies have also shown that the beard effect may have significant implications in criminal law. A 2004 study in New Jersey asked hundreds of participants to "sketch the face of a criminal offender. Eighty-two percent of the sketches contained some form of facial hair."

In studies where "jurors" in fictitious sex-crime cases were shown pictures of male defendants, the bearded ones were more likely to be perceived as guilty.

The authors of the recent study did note that there are several positive societal associations with beards as well, including maturity and courage. But in criminal trials, especially for violent crimes, a male defendant may need to work especially hard to show that he has a "kind" face.

In some cases, that may entail a clean shave and studious pair of glasses.

Source: MSNBC, "Sorry, guys: We judge you by your facial hair," Brian Alexander, May 10, 2012

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