Study shows our faces reveal whether we're rich or poor

July 5, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Put on a happy face, your success may depend on it, suggests a study by psychology researchers at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Arts and Science.

In a new twist on first impressions, the study found people can reliably tell if someone is richer or poorer than average just by looking at a "neutral" face, without any expression.

People also use those impressions in biased ways, such as judging the rich faces more likely than the poor ones to be hired for a job, says the paper by Associate Professor Nicholas Rule and PhD candidate Thora Bjornsdottir in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"It indicates that something as subtle as the signals in your face about your can actually then perpetuate it," says Bjornsdottir. "Those first impressions can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. It's going to influence your interactions, and the opportunities you have."

Just as interestingly, the researchers found the ability to read a person's social class only applies to their neutral face and not when people are smiling or expressing emotions.

Their conclusion is that emotions mask life-long habits of expression that become etched on a person's face even by their late teens or early adulthood, such as frequent happiness, which is stereotypically associated with being wealthy and satisfied.

"Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences," says Rule. "Even when we think we're not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there."

Using an annual median family income of about $75,000 as a benchmark, the researchers grouped student volunteers into those with total family incomes under $60,000 or above $100,000 and then had them pose for photos with neutral faces devoid of expression.

They then asked a separate group of participants to look at the photos and, using nothing but their gut instinct, decide which ones were "rich or poor" just by looking at the faces. They were able to determine which student belonged to the rich or poor group with about 53 per cent accuracy, a level that exceeds random chance.

"What we're seeing is students who are just 18-22 years old have already accumulated enough life experience that it has visibly changed and shaped their face to the point you can tell what their socio-economic standing or social class is," says Rule.

The results were not affected by the race or gender of the face, or how much time people were given to study them. All of which is consistent with what is known about nonverbal behaviour.

"There are neurons in the brain that specialize in facial recognition. The face is the first thing you notice when you look at somebody," says Rule.

"We see faces in clouds, we see in toast. We are sort of hardwired to look for face-like stimuli. And this is something people pick up very quickly. And they are consistent, which is what makes it statistically significant."

"People are not really aware of what cues they are using when they make these judgments," says Bjornsdottir. "If you ask them why, they don't know. They are not aware of how they are doing this."

The study of social classes as an undercurrent in psychology and behaviour is getting more recognition, says Rule. And with 43 muscles concentrated in a relatively small area, facial cues are one of the most intriguing areas in this field.

"People talk about the cycle of poverty, and this is potentially one contributor to that," says Rule.

He says the next step might be to study older age groups to see if the patterns of become even more apparent to over time.

Explore further: Study shows when people feel anxious they are less reliable at reading emotions in other faces

More information: R. Thora Bjornsdottir et al, The Visibility of Social Class From Facial Cues., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000091

Related Stories

Study shows when people feel anxious they are less reliable at reading emotions in other faces

May 31, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers with the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit and the U.K. Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies has found evidence of impaired emotional face reading by people when they are feeling ...

Facial expressions can cause us problems in telling unfamiliar faces apart

June 2, 2017
Using hundreds of faces of actors from movies, psychologists from the University of Bristol have shown how facial expressions can get in the way of our ability to tell unfamiliar faces apart.

Let's face it, first impressions count online

January 30, 2017
We live in an age where most of us have an online presence. Many of us have numerous accounts on social and professional networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. And singles among us are increasingly turning online ...

Familiar faces look happier than unfamiliar ones

June 20, 2017
People tend to perceive faces they are familiar with as looking happier than unfamiliar faces, even when the faces objectively express the same emotion to the same degree, according to new research published in Psychological ...

Study finds facial impressions driven by our own experiences

November 14, 2016
The pseudoscience of physiognomy - judging people's character from their faces - has been around for centuries, but a new Princeton University study shows that people make such judgments based on their own experiences.

Brain damage can make sideways faces more memorable, and give us 'emotion blindness'

June 6, 2017
People with damage to a crucial part of the brain fail to recognise facial emotions, but they unexpectedly find faces looking sideways more memorable researchers have found.

Recommended for you

Anti-stress compound reduces obesity and diabetes

December 13, 2017
For the first time, scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich could prove that a stress protein found in muscle has a diabetes promoting effect. This finding could pave the way to a completely new treatment ...

Encouraging risk-taking in children may reduce the prevalence of childhood anxiety

December 13, 2017
A new international study suggests that parents who employ challenging parent behavioural (CPB) methods – active physical and verbal behaviours that encourage children to push their limits – are likely protecting their ...

Researchers link epigenetic aging to bipolar disorder

December 12, 2017
Bipolar disorder may involve accelerated epigenetic aging, which could explain why persons with the disorder are more likely to have - and die from - age-related diseases, according to researchers from The University of Texas ...

Researchers find common psychological traits in group of Italians aged 90 to 101

December 12, 2017
In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San ...

Twitter can reveal our shared mood

December 11, 2017
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Bristol have analysed mood indicators in text from 800 million anonymous messages posted on Twitter. These tweets were found to reflect strong patterns ...

Infant brain responses predict reading speed in secondary school

December 11, 2017
A study conducted at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Jyväskylä Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research (CIBR) has found that the brain responses of infants with an inherited ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

h20dr
not rated yet Jul 06, 2017
Very interesting.
avandesande2000
not rated yet Jul 07, 2017
Did they control for IQ? There is a linear relationship between income and IQ... I would suggest that it is easier to sense intelligence in someones face than income.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.