Legal courts as well as public discussions have repeatedly grappled with the question whether police officers should be allowed to wear visible body modifications such as tattoos. Yet, to this date, these discussions and decisions have rarely been informed by empirical evidence. Accordingly, the main goal of this research was to (begin to) close this research gap. In two studies, participants were shown edited photographs of police officers with and without tattoos/piercings and rated them with regard to friendliness, trustworthiness, competence, and assertiveness. Moreover, participants indicated how much they liked, respected, and felt threatened by the respective police officers. Extending previous findings on the negative perception of individuals with body modifications (e.g., for tattoos: Dean 2010; Zestcott et al. 2017, 2018; for piercings: McElroy et al. 2014; Swami et al. 2012), our results clearly showed that, as expected, police officers with tattoos and piercings are also evaluated more negatively. Specifically, police officers with body modifications were perceived as less trustworthy and less competent by citizens compared to their counterparts without tattoos and piercings. Moreover, they were liked somewhat less and they triggered higher perceptions of threat. Police officers with tattoos (but not with piercings) were also perceived as less friendly and more assertive. Regarding respect, we found no differences between officers with and without body modifications. Overall, results were similar (but not identical) across studies and the effect sizes ranged from small to medium.
The major strengths of the present research are its experimental design employing standardized materials and its theoretical grounding in the well-established research on basic dimensions of social perception. More specifically, the presented photographs of officers only differed in the presence of tattoos/piercings, which allows causal inferences from differences in evaluation to the respective body modification. Moreover, we measured the perception of officers with and without body modifications as dependent variables instead of only explicitly asking for citizens’ opinion about tattooed and pierced police officers. In this way, we could reduce tendencies for socially desirable responding. In fact, even though participants explicitly stated rather positive attitudes towards pierced officers, they rated them more negatively than officers without piercings. Furthermore, by applying a basic dimensions approach, we gathered comprehensive and more systematic insights into how officers with body modifications are perceived. Interestingly, in addition to their practical implications, our results also have important theoretical implications for research on social perception. We turn to these latter implications first.
Implications for Social Perception Research
The present research offers important theoretical insights regarding research on social perception. Even though competence and assertiveness are facets of the same dimension, namely agency, we found an opposing effect of tattoos on these facets in study 1: Tattoos decreased perceived competence but increased perceived assertiveness. This demonstrates that it is not only useful to distinguish between the facets of communion and agency, it is sometimes even necessary. Previous research has, for example, shown that trustworthiness (morality) is even more important than friendliness (warmth) for positive other-evaluation (Abele and Hauke 2020; Brambilla and Leach 2014), but still both communal facets are positively related to it. Likewise, previous research has shown that assertiveness is even more important than competence for positive self-esteem (Abele et al. 2016; Hauke and Abele 2020a, b) or for status perception (Carrier et al. 2014; Louvet et al. 2019), but still both agentic facets are positively related to them. Contrasting effects in opposing directions for two facets of the same basic dimension have been discussed theoretically, but have rarely been shown empirically. In fact, we are only aware of one such set of studies. Also for the agency dimension, Methner and colleagues (2020) recently found that acknowledging criticism can cause public figures to appear more competent but less assertive. In our study 1, tattoos decreased the perception of competence, but increased the perception of assertiveness. This could be explained by the circumstance that tattoos are associated with groups that are considered as assertive (like sailors and soldiers) but at the same time also with groups that are not compatible with the role of police officers (like prisoners and gang members who rather commit than solve crimes; Adams 2012; DeMello 2000; Schildkrout 2004; Wohlrab et al. 2007). This incompatibility could decrease the perception of competence. If we would have simply measured agency as a single dimension, the effect of tattoos would have been completely disguised by these opposing effects.
Interaction Effects with Officer Gender
In some previous studies, the negative stigma associated with facial piercings was found equally for male and female pierced individuals (McElroy et al. 2014). Other research found that pierced men were rated more negatively than pierced women (Swami et al. 2012). Again, others found that perceivers viewed tattooed women more negatively than men (Swami and Furnham 2007).
In our research, we found the same results for female and male officers for most of the dependent variables across both studies. However, we did find that the negative effect of tattoos and piercings on trustworthiness was stronger for male than for female officers. Moreover, only male tattooed officers (but not female tattooed officers) were perceived as significantly more assertive, more threatening, and tended to be respected more. These stronger effects of tattoos for men could be explained by a different connotation of tattoos for the two sexes. On one hand, the stigmatized milieus which are a basis for the negative stereotypes about tattooed individuals are stereotypically male (e.g., prisoners, gang members). On the other hand, body modifications are perhaps more socially accepted for women who use make-up and wear ear rings regularly. Importantly though, the gender differences found in the present research remain explorative and the explanations for them are post hoc. Thus, they should be critically tested in future studies.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
A remaining question is the generalizability of our results. The samples we used were opportunity samples and not representative in terms of gender, age, and education. Our participants in both studies were more often women, rather young, and highly educated. Moreover, our participants were rather left-wing oriented, but a center-left political orientation is commonly found in representative German samples. For estimating how these four sample characteristics could have influenced our results, we scrutinized previous research regarding perceiver effects. The gender of the perceiver did not affect attitudes toward tattooed individuals (Baumann et al. 2016; Degelman and Price 2002; Dickson et al. 2014; Hawkes et al. 2004; Zestcott et al. 2017). However, age (Deal et al. 2010; Dean 2010; Lin 2002; Zestcott et al. 2018), being a student, (Dale et al. 2009), and a left-wing political orientation (Swami et al. 2012; Zestcott et al. 2018) have all been associated with a more positive evaluation of tattooed and/or pierced individuals. Thus, if anything, the negative effects found in our relatively young samples with high proportions of students and with left-wing oriented people would have probably been stronger in a representative sample or in more right-wing oriented parts of society. The same goes for tattoo status, as compared to the general population, a higher proportion of our participants was tattooed themselves and in past research, own tattoos were sometimes related to more favorable attitudes towards tattooed individuals (e.g., Burgess and Clark 2010; Dickson et al. 2014; Hawkes et al. 2004; Zestcott et al. 2017, 2018; but see Dean 2010; Degelman and Price 2002). Piercings were about as common as in representative samples.
Another limitation of the present research is that our data only allows reliable statements for young White police officers with rather extensive “tribal tattoos” on the forearm and with lip and eyebrow piercings. This is important, as empirical evidence suggests that stereotypes and prejudice toward tattooed individuals may vary according to the nature of the tattoo (e.g., type, size, number). The “aloha” tattoo desired by the German police officer mentioned in the Introduction could have very different effects than the tattoos used in the present research. So called “contemporary” tattoos, such as images of dolphins or hearts, are rated as more modern, friendly, cute, happy, and peaceful and as less aggressive, bold, and bad than “traditional” tattoos, such as thick blacked lined tribal patterns (Burgess and Clark 2010). As a consequence, previous research found more negative attitudes towards individuals with a tribal tattoo than towards individuals with a heart tattoo. However, the overall attitude was still negative for the heart tattoo (Zestcott et al. 2017). Future studies should test the effects of officers from different age, racial, and ethnic groups and of different types of tattoos and piercings.
Implications for Appearance Guidelines for Police Officers
Beyond the theoretical implications, our results have important practical implications regarding the appearance of police officers and their perception by citizens. The most consistent and robust finding of the present studies was that police officers with tattoos and piercings were perceived more negatively. Specifically, they were consistently seen as less trustworthy, less competent, and more threatening, all perceptions that are likely to negatively affect interactions between police and citizens. However, it would be an overinterpretation of our results to claim that they provide a clear “No” to the question whether police officers should be allowed to have tattoos and piercings on visible parts of the body. This has several reasons. First, the negative effects of body modifications were of small to medium effect sizes and the level of the positive (negative) outcome variables always stayed above (below) the neutral scale mean. (But note that as discussed above, our samples reflect a rather conservative test of the negative effects of tattoos and piercings and the true effect sizes in the population may be higher). Second, as discussed in the limitations section, it is not clear whether the negative effects we found for extensive black tribal tattoos on the forearm can be generalized to other types of tattoos like a friendly “aloha” lettering. A third point that should be considered is social change. While our data showed that participants perceived police officers with body modifications more negatively, they, at the same time, explicitly stated rather positive attitudes towards piercings on police officers. If officers would be allowed to have body modifications they could contribute themselves to social change. If citizens would have positive interactions with tattooed and/or pierced officers, maybe also the perception of officers with body modifications would improve over time. Fourth and most importantly, for an informed decision on whether police officers should be allowed to wear tattoos and piercings or not, further aspects must be taken into account that go beyond the scope of what social psychological research can contribute. Two crucial aspects are, for instance, the right of each individual to express their individuality by tattoos and piercings and safety issues regarding piercings. In a physical confrontation, a piercing can potentially be used by aggressors to hurt the officer, for example, by pulling it, one reason why piercings are forbidden in the police service in Germany (Henrichs 2002).
That being said, our research provides important empirical information regarding one argument often brought forward in discussions concerning police officers’ right to wear tattoos, namely the question how citizens perceive police officers with tattoos and piercings. The present research indicates that tattoos and piercings can in fact negatively affect how citizens perceive officers. Thus, this should be part of the respective considerations. If body modifications were allowed, the present research suggests that officers should be aware of the potentially negative perceptions triggered by tattoos and piercings, so that they can make a more informed decision to get them or not. Moreover, if tattooed and pierced officers have this potentially negative effect in mind, they can actively take countermeasures in their interaction with citizens to prevent negative consequences—keeping in mind that citizens might form a first impression before the interaction even starts (Olivola and Todorov 2010; Zebrowitz 1996).