Strangers can tell your social class based on just your facial expressions

Telework is an inspired solution to self-isolation mandates. Companies across the world have employed the largest remote movement in history. As we continue to adjust to an out-of-office era, physical status cues are beginning to take on a new life. 

A new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour examines the gravity of facial impressions in regards to perceived success and competence. In various fields, including business, politics, and athletics, strangers assessed social class, aptitude and expertise the most reliably via articles of clothing. 

“In nine studies, people rated the competence of faces presented in frontal headshots. Faces were shown with different upper-body clothing rated by independent judges as looking “richer” or“poorer”, although not notably perceived as such when explicitly described,” the study’s authors wrote. “The same face when seen with ‘richer’ clothes was judged significantly more competent than with ‘poorer’ clothes. The effect persisted even when perceivers were exposed to the stimuli briefly (129 ms), warned that clothing cues are non-informative and instructed to ignore the clothes (in one study, with considerable incentives).”

Consistently across the nine experiments that informed the new paper, the quality of upper body articles of clothing was the most animating element of analysis for respondents.

The researchers presented the study pool with 18 African American faces and 18 Caucasian faces. The samples were adorned with clothing that represented subtle class distinctions. An independent board of judges was recruited to ensure that the differences remained mild.

Once these prerequisites were put in place, participants were given between one and 130 milliseconds to apply adjectives to the headshots presented. Even when directed to omit clothing from their analysis, respondents were much more likely to ascribe favorable attributes to those in more expensive clothing. This was true irrespective of the formality of the clothing and even when participants were offered monetary incentives to disregard attire.

“Although the effect persisted through various manipulations (including explicit instructions to ignore the clothes), one might argue that these manipulations were simply not strong enough to motivate participants to suppress the immediate bias. To better assess the controllability of the effect, we introduced an added incentive to be accurate,” the authors continued. “Specifically, in addition to the advice to ignore the clothes, participants were told that The participant whose ratings are the most accurate will receive, in addition to their standard pay, an additional $100 reward. Accuracy, they were told, would be determined by how close a participant’s ratings are to those of participants who saw the faces without the same clothes.”

 These findings are particularly interesting when we take a closer look at the cross tabs. We’re likely facing a trying economic season. If quantitative easing and corporate bailouts don’t pan out the way they’re projected to, upward mobility will be severely wounded. The last thing rising unemployment rates need is more class barriers.  As explained by the study’s lead author, Eldar Shafir:

“Poverty is a place rife with challenges. Instead of respect for the struggle, people living in poverty face persistent disregard and disrespect by the rest of society. We found that such disrespect — clearly unfounded since in these studies the identical face was seen as less competent when it appeared with poorer clothing — can have its beginnings in the first tenth of a second of an encounter.”