The recent acquittal of Amanda Knox (after a long trial for murder in Italy) provided a lot of interesting commentary. I’ve always been interested in the average person’s views on the judicial system, and it was fascinating to see that most people thought the acquittal was a miscarriage of justice because they were sure that Knox was actually guilty.
There was nothing substantial to buttress those views- for most people it was quite simply a study of her body language and facial expressions.
The evidence was all secondary to the gut instinct people felt watching her on TV and coming to firm conclusions solely on that basis.
To a certain extent, it is understandable that the average person would form conclusions on this flimsy basis as they would have to have full details of the case to come to a more knowledgeable conclusion and few of us will undertake such a task with more pressing matters in our lives.
However, a recent Guardian article revealed something more disturbing. It turns out Italian police placed a heavy emphasis on Knox’s facial expressions and body language to conclude that she was guilty (and brazenly said so on several occasions).
The fact that Knox was generally calm and composed and that she had a few affectionate moments with her boyfriend and co-accused after her arrest was all the police needed to paint her as guilty.
This is obviously very absurd. The notion that people react to the same events in the same way is just patently untrue, and for a modern police force in the 21st century to have this idea is surprising.
The fact that Knox did not grieve or express sadness or fear in the conventional way should not have been evidence of her guilt.
In any case, why are we always so sure that we can read people’s faces so well? The idea that we can look at people’s faces and deduce all sorts of things is misguided.
Interestingly, studies have shown that we have a lot of confidence in our ability to read other people’s faces (especially in the context of trying to decide whether they are telling the truth or not) but we tend to think that people cannot read ours.
This is evidently quite illogical, even if face-reading was indeed an accurate science.
So, it was with quite remarkable timing that I stumbled on a recent study on the TV show Lie to me. The show is about a firm which hires experts whose specialty is identifying liars by studying their faces for tell-tale signs.
The premise of the show is based on the work of a true-life self-proclaimed expert. He claimed to have devised a system that was extremely accurate at telling if someone was lying by studying their face.
However, the study was quite clear that such claims were-to put it politely- a big pile of bovine droppings. There is little evidence that liars can be spotted by studying their faces.
The show, however, makes a big deal of the science behind it which makes it very misleading for viewers.
It’s quite interesting to ponder how many things we take for granted in our everyday lives with little evidence to back them up.