Study these faces closely. Do you think they look guilty of a crime?




Polling Google Gadget



Polling Google Gadget



Polling Google Gadget



Polling Google Gadget



Polling Google Gadget





When you looked at these faces and tried to ‘read’ them, you were doing the same thing that many scholars, scientists and police officers have tried to do for many years. Sir Frances Galton made composite photographs out of mug shots trying to identify a ‘criminal look’; phrenologists studied the death masks of executed criminals; Johann Kaspar Lavatar named facial features he thought might indicate criminality.

In 1886 a Boston police officer named Thomas Byrnes published Professional Criminals of America, a coffee-table style book of mug shots of mainly ‘confidence men’ and swindlers. According to Byrnes, these criminals appeared to have 'respectable faces' and he wanted to encourage the public to look suspiciously at these seemingly trustworthy faces. People in New Zealand at the end of the nineteenth century also had concerns about the 'criminal look': in 1892, for example, a newspaper article entitled “Beautiful Rogues” expressed concerns that pretty young girls wouldn't be convicted of serious crimes because their faces wouldn't look criminal enough to juries.

Issues with the ‘look’ of criminals in mug shots still exist today. Studies by psychological researchers in the 1990s revealed that juries who are shown a mug shot of an accused person will be far more likely to convict that person, whether or not they are guilty. Researchers suggest that this might be due to our strong association between mug shots and criminality. Other psychological studies of human recognition can reveal fascinating insight into the way we look at mug shots as well. For example, it has been claimed that the way we see people is based strongly on the way we see ourselves: if we focus on our teeth when we look in the mirror, teeth will become an important focal point when we look at other people. Because of this, two people might recognize the same person for different characteristics. This explains why a person might remind us strongly of someone else, but another person won’t see the resemblance between the two at all.


Ask yourself this: Do the people in these mug shots look suspicious or do we just look at them suspiciously?












Chelsea Nichols, March 2010. Unless otherwise stated, all images and information found on this website are property of the New Zealand Police Museum.