Cornell Study Finds That We Identify Criminals on Sight

You’re walking down a deserted city street, on your way back to the parking garage to pick up your car. The dim light of the streetlamps casts everything in an eerie, surreal glow. You approach the entrance of the parking garage, and you see a man simply standing there, smoking a cigarette. As you get closer, you can make out his facial features. Do you run? Does he look dangerous? Are you looking at a potential criminal?

The idea that we may be able to identify a criminal on sight isn’t new. However, it has faced a lot of skepticism from many people, due to the fact that many people unfairly¬†categorize¬†others based on their appearance. Some people argue that we may mistrust someone unfairly based on their appearance, or improperly label someone as a potential criminal.

To explore these arguments, researchers at Cornell University conducted an extensive study. They gathered photos of Caucasian males, half of which were convicted criminals, and half of which were not. The photos were all on a white background, and all of the men did not have excessive facial hair. The photos were also carefully selected to not have identifying features such as attractiveness and display of emotion. All of the criminal photos were of men that were on their first conviction. Also, roughly half of these men had committed violent crimes, and half had committed a nonviolent crime.

Results of the Study

The conclusion that the researchers reached from the study was that – Yes, we can identify criminals on sight. According to one of the researches that was involved in the project:¬†“In two experiments, subjects were able to distinguish between criminals and noncriminals by rating each photo we presented to them”.

The participants were asked to rate each photo on a scale of 1 to 7, on how likely they thought that it was that each man had committed a crime. The results unveiled a surprising trend – all of the criminal photos were rated as being much more likely to have committed a crime.

However, the study also identified many other interesting trends, which may explain more about criminal psychology. For example, women in the study had a lot more trouble correctly identifying men who were rapists. According to the researchers, this may be because rapists spend more time trying to make themselves appear approachable and non-threatening.


Interestingly enough, reactions to this study have been mixed, especially among people who strongly disagree with the “Born Criminal” psychological theory. Many people don’t want to believe that criminals could be identified simply on sight, since this would go against many of the other studies that “proved” otherwise.

What Can We Learn?

As with any study, it’s important to look at this information from an objective standpoint. Basically, what it comes down to, is – Trust your Gut. While you may not always be avoiding a potential criminal, it still pays to be cautious, especially with people that you don’t know. However, it’s also important not to fall victim to paranoia. Use common sense, and always exercise caution around strangers.