People perceive a person’s competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person’s clothing, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour by Princeton University. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds, and are very hard to avoid.
In nine studies conducted by the researchers, people rated the competence of faces wearing different upper-body clothing. Clothing perceived as “richer” by an observer — whether it was a T-shirt, sweater, or other top — led to higher competence ratings of the person pictured than similar clothes judged as “poorer,” the researchers found.
Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.
“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,” said study co-author Eldar Shafir, Class of 1987 Professor in Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “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.”
“Wealth inequality has worsened since the late 1980s in the United States. Now the gap between the top 1% and the middle class is over 1,000,000%, a mind-numbing figure,” said lead author DongWon Oh, who worked on the study as a Ph.D. student at Princeton, and is now a postdoctoral fellow in New York University’s Department of Psychology. “Other labs’ work has shown people are sensitive to how rich or poor other individuals appear. Our work found that people are susceptible to these cues when judging others on meaningful traits, like competence, and that these cues are hard, if not impossible, to ignore.”
Oh and Shafir, who is the inaugural director of Princeton’s Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy, conducted the study with Alexander Todorov, professor of psychology at Princeton.
The researchers began with images of 50 faces, each wearing clothes rated as “richer” or “poorer” by an independent group of judges who were asked, “How rich or poor does this person look?” Based on those ratings, the researchers selected 18 black and 18 white face-clothing pairs displaying the most prominent rich-poor differences. These were then used across the nine studies
Source: Woodrow Wilson School
Original publication 9 December, 2019
Posted on NatCorn 31st December 2019
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