A University of Toronto study has found that people can tell what economic class a person is in just by looking at their face.
Associate professor Nicholas Rule and graduate student Thora Bjornsdottir recently published their findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The researchers found that subtle facial signals can indicate your social class. These first impressions can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and influence the interactions and opportunities you have throughout your life
The research demonstrated that emotions can interfere with a person’s ability to read social class. A neutral, expressionless face is often the easiest to read. Emotions are able to mask ingrained habits of expression that can be picked up by a person’s late teens or early adulthood.
Rule said that over time, your face may permanently reveal and reflect your experiences, even if you are unaware you are expressing them.
Researchers used an annual median family income of roughly $75,000 as a benchmark, grouping student volunteers together whose families earned under $60,000 or over $100,000, then had them pose for photos while not showing any facial expressions.
A separate group of volunteers was asked to look at the photos and use their gut instinct to determine what financial group they belonged to. The group was able to determine which student belonged to which group with a level of accuracy that exceeds random chance.
Researchers said they were seeing students aged 18-22 who already have enough life experience that had visibly changed their face to the point that a stranger could determine their socio-economic level.
Results were not affected by the amount of time participants were given to look at the images, nor by the gender or race of the face, which is consistent with what we know about non-verbal behaviour.
Researchers said that some neurons in the brain specialise in facial recognition, with a person’s face the first thing we look at. We even see faces in the clouds - humans appear to be hardwired to look for faces in everything.
Bjornsdottir commented that people are not aware of the cues they pick up on when making these judgements, and are unaware of how they are doing it.
The study of social class is a section in psychology and behaviour getting more attention, with facial cues being one of the most intriguing areas in this field. The findings of this study may contribute to the cycle of poverty in some unexpected ways. The next step of the study is to study older age groups to see if the facial cues become more or less apparent over time.