One-sighted: How visual attention biases legal decision-making

Anni Sternisko, Yael Granot, Emily Balcetis

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Despite universal aspirations to hold all people equal before the law and guarantee a fair trial to defendants regardless of their race, religion, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation, disparity continues to pervade the justice system. People who belong to some social groups are particularly likely to receive harsher legal outcomes than others. The justice system attempts to remedy such inter-group bias by collecting and considering evidence that speaks to the ‘objective’ truth of an event, some of the most potent forms of which include pictorial images and video footage. While such visual evidence is itself considered objective, it can perhaps counter-intuitively foster bias in court. We review research and provide original data asserting that bias in legal judgment persists despite the inclusion of visual evidence partly because decision-makers’ perceptions of visual evidence may be swayed by subjective factors. Specifically, social group membership engenders bias in verdicts and punishment decisions because it directs the way that people visually attend to evidence. To account more fully for variability in legal decisions, we argue that social group membership must be investigated concurrently with its impact on the encoding and processing of visual information. This chapter synthesizes contemporary research on visual attention and contextualizes it within the evaluation of legal evidence. We draw upon our own work and that of others’ who have used eye-tracking and other techniques to measure or manipulate overt visual attention to evidence. We argue that the consideration of visual attention can assist in predicting when and how social group membership biases legal decisionmaking, and we speculate about the underlying psychological mechanisms responsible. Finally, we propose ways in which visual attention can be utilized to mitigate biases in legal decision-making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNew Developments in Visual Attention Research
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages35
ISBN (Electronic)9781536123913
ISBN (Print)9781536123746
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017


  • Legal decisionmaking
  • Legal outcomes
  • Social group membership
  • Social identity
  • Visual attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


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