Smiling Beth Muir standing in front of the High Court of Australia

Bethany Muir

Behind the Face of Crime

PhD Candidate, Applied Cognitive Psychology
Australian National University

Have you ever walked past a stranger and thought “I don’t trust that person”, or “I don’t like the look of that person”?

We often make our minds up about people without even talking to them. You might have heard the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover” – but in reality, that is what humans do. Surprisingly, some of these snap judgments can be accurate! But other times, they are not. At times these judgments usually don’t have consequences, but when you think about someone who is charged with a crime, these judgments might actually affect whether you see this person as ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’.

I grew up in Launceston, Tasmania. Growing up, I wanted to be a lawyer – in my eyes, it allowed me to fight crime without the physical risk and fear of being a frontline police officer. But late in high school, I was introduced to psychology (the study of human behaviour) and encouraged by my legal studies teacher to do a project on how people remember crimes. I learned that there are hundreds of innocent people who have been sent to jail for crimes they did not do, and that this was often due to errors in memory and human judgment, such as those ‘snap judgments’ made about others and biases such as ‘that person looks like a criminal, therefore they must be guilty’. Through this project, my perspective changed, and I no longer wanted to fight crime, I wanted to fight injustice.

Now, I am a psychology researcher looking at biases in the court system and how we can overcome them. In other words, I look at how people’s snap judgments may lead to unfair assumptions about a person, and how we can stop this from happening. I love that my research helps to solve a part of the puzzle about how people think, and not only shows how others are being unfair, but shows me when I’m being unfair, meaning that it challenges me to monitor biases in my own decision making.


Follow Beth on Twitter: @bethany_muir