Study finds strangers know your social class in milliseconds based on one item of clothing

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Everyone knows that impressions of competence and social status are linked in the minds of most, but the extent to which a piece of clothing can reveal your economic well-being might alarm you. According to a new study published in the journal of Nature Human Behaviour conducted by Princeton University, in a matter of milliseconds, people take in subtle economic cues to survey a subject’s degree of competence.

“Impressions of competence from faces predict important real-world outcomes, including electoral success and chief executive officer selection,” the study’ authors, DongWon OhEldar Shafir and Alexander Todorov explained in the report.  “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. These findings demonstrate the uncontrollable effect of economic status cues on person perception.” Shafir added, “Poverty is a place rife with challenges. Instead of respect for the struggle, people living in poverty face a 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.”

Clothing affects perceived competence from faces

The conclusions motioned above were consistently demonstrated across nine studies. Surprisingly, it didn’t really matter what kind of upper body article of clothing the subject was wearing, so long as its quality was visibly distinguishable. This isn’t to suggest that the participants were presented with extremes. On the contrary, an independent pool of judges was recruited to ensure that the differences were mild. In fact, the words “rich” or “poor” only occurred once out of a total of 4,725 adjectives used.

The respondents were shown 50 headshots, 25 of which featured individuals sporting “richer” upper-body clothing, while the other half showcased subjects wearing“poorer” clothing. The participants were then tasked with rating each’s competence via a nine-point scale, using only their gut feeling. Then based on the results of that group, the study’s authors chose 18 black and 18 white face-clothing pairs that demonstrated the most profound combinations of rich and poor differences.

How do you encourage intuition to prevail as the primary force in the process of perception? You only allot between one second to approximately 130 milliseconds for participants to come to a decision. Even when directed to ignore the clothing, even when offered a monetary incentive to omit clothing from their analysis, clothing dramatically influenced perception of competence at virtually every turn. And this perception was irrespective of how formal or informal the items were. If the clothing was identified as richer, positive impressions were invariably awarded.

“Knowing about a bias is often a good first step,” Shafir said. “A potential, even if highly insufficient, the interim solution may be to avoid exposure whenever possible. Just like teachers sometimes grade blindly so as to avoid favoring some students, interviewers and employers may want to take what measures they can, when they can, to evaluate people, say, on paper so as to circumvent indefensible yet hard to avoid competency judgments. Academic departments, for example, have long known that hiring without interviews can yield better scholars. It’s also an excellent argument for school uniforms.”

First impressions

But perhaps this isn’t surprising in regards to snap judgments in very small amounts of time. A study from 2017 from the University of California-San Francisco and Yale University published in Perspectives on Psychological Scienceconducted experiments on the verbal and nonverbal signs of social class.

The researchers had participants look at 20 Facebook photographs, watch a 60-second video of participants interacting with others, and listen to seven spoken words from participants. They then had observers listen to these speakers say seven words out of context  — “and,” “from,” “thought,” “beautiful,” “imagine,” “yellow,” and “the.” From only those seven words, the observers could guess the participants’ social class quite accurately. “When individuals accurately signal and perceive social class in interactions with others, signals that communicate differences in social class are likely to create barriers for relationship formation across class boundaries,” the authors wrote.