Does facial width-to-height ratio predict male offender aggression?

Publication Date06 Nov 2017
AuthorChristopher Burris,Sherilyn Edwards
SubjectHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Criminal psychology,Sociology,Sociology of crime & law,Deviant behaviour,Public policy & environmental management,Policing,Criminal justice
Does facial width-to-height ratio predict
male offender aggression?
Christopher Burris and Sherilyn Edwards
Purpose Based on the previously observed link between greater facial width-to-height ratio ( fWHR) and
interpersonal aggression in men (see Haselhuhn et al., 2015), the purpose of this paper is to test whether
fWHR could differentiate among male offenders as a function of the relative aggressiveness of the crime for
which they had been convicted.
Design/methodology/approach fWHR measurements (n ¼550) were computed based on a large
subset of male offenders available on a public domain database. Each offenders index offense and possible
confounding variables such as age, ethnicity, and body mass index were also recorded.
Findings Multiple analyses yielded no evidence of a relationship between male fWHR and the comparative
level of violence of their conviction offense.
Originality/value Establishing an empirical basis for probable parameters of an unknown offenders
facial structure could have a considerable practical value for criminal profiling purposes. fWHR at least as
it has been most frequentl y assessed does not appear to be a facial parameter that is useful for this
purpose, however.
Keywords Aggression, Violence, Profiling, Facial structure, Facial width-to-height ratio, Offender sample
Paper type Research paper
The primary goal of criminal profiling is to assist investigators by providing a set of probable
offender characteristics intended to narrow down the suspect pool (e.g. Crabbé et al., 2008).
With this in mind, being able to specify probable, easily observable offender characteristics such
as facial features would be of immense practical value. One of the first attempts to demonstrate
links between physical appearance and offense type was the mid-nineteenth century work of
Cesare Lombroso, a key early figure in the history of criminology. Lombrosos controversial
efforts were rooted in phrenology, which was based on the assumption that brain regions have
specialized functions that correspond to the shape of an individuals skull (see DeLisi, 2013).
Given cultural shifts away from a simplistic biology is destinyphilosophy, Valla et al. (2011)
noted that empirical attempts to link physical appearance to (non-criminal as well as criminal)
behavioral tendencies have generally fallen out of favor since Lombroso. Nevertheless,
suggestive findings continue to appear. For example, Rule et al. (2008, 2009) documented
individualsgreater-than-chance ability to identify a persons sexual orientation based on brief
exposure to a headshot. Similarly, Boothroyd et al. (2008) showed that individuals are able to
predict othersattitudes toward relationships and promiscuity with above-chance accuracy
based on facial structure.
In their own research, Valla et al. (2011) assessed peoples accuracy in selecting criminals
from headshots of emo tionally neutral, young adult, C aucasian male faces. No facial mar kings
(e.g. tattoos, piercings) or facial hair were evident in any headshot; moreover, all were tailored
to exclude background and minimize differences in light quality, graininess, etc. With all of
these methodological safeguards in place, participants in two studies using different stimulus
sets demonstrated greater-than-chance accuracy when discriminating between criminalsand
non-criminalsheadshots displa ying neutral expressions. Thus , although participants were not
able to identify reliably who had committed a specific type of crime (assault, arson, rape,
Received 6 March 2017
Revised 15 May 2017
20 June 2017
Accepted 21 June 2017
Christopher Burris is a
Professor of Psychology at the
St Jeromes University,
Waterloo, Canada.
Sherilyn Edwards is based at
the University of Waterloo,
Waterloo, Canada.
VOL. 7 NO. 4 2017, pp. 280-286, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2009-3829 DOI 10.1108/JCP-03-2017-0013

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