People Can Look at Your Face and Figure Out Your Social Class

Psychologists reveal why upwards social mobility is so difficult.


There are some telltale signs of someone who is rich: that flashy wristwatch, the fancy car, the massive summer home.

But researchers found that even when people were presented with just the faces of particularly rich and poor folks, we’re still pretty good at figuring out who’s swimming in the dough and who’s broke.

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in May, went one step further by asking a different set of participants what their thoughts were on poor and rich people’s attractiveness — without telling them who belonged to which social class. The participants decided that the warmer, happier faces belonged to richer people. Meanwhile, poor people were rated as less attractive and colder, in spite of showing comparable emotions.

“Given its broad impact on our lives, I wondered whether social class might actually leave a lasting mark on our appearance,” Ragnheidur Thora Bjornsdottir, a psychologist from the University of Toronto who conducted the research, tells Inverse. “Furthermore, recent research has also found that social class impacts our interactions — I wanted to expand upon this to see how early this impact might be.”

Can you tell from this woman's face whether she is rich or poor? What gave it away?

Flickr / be creator

Bjornsdottir cited past research that says that even though poor people are more likely to engage in prosocial and empathetic behaviors, like donating money, people tend to believe the opposite because their facial appearances are considered less warm than rich people. Even when all of the models used in the study were demonstrating a neutral face, rich people were rated as being warmer and more hirable as potential employees.

People tend to make their judgments based on the signs of a lifetime of stress because they don’t see that person’s actual behavior.

“What surprised me most were the results… on hiring decisions — that these very subtle affective signals in our faces that cue our social class can actually have the potential to maintain class boundaries,” said Bjornsdottir.

But is it that beautiful people tend to make more money or that wealthy people are judged as more attractive?

It’s a chicken-and-egg question that has plagued social scientists. Bjornsdottir’s study, conducted by a team at the University of Toronto, seems to suggest the answer is both, though her data suggested that attractiveness only came into play when people were rating faces taken from dating website profiles. Attractiveness was no longer a factor when the dating profile faces were replaced by more controllable photos of undergraduate students from the University of Toronto, but assumptions about personality and hireability remained.

In seven experiments designed to figure out exactly what it was about people’s faces that gave away whether they were rich or poor, they found that people could literally see signs of a poor person’s more difficult life on their face, whether or not they were conscious of the distinction, and even without visual cues like clothing, piercings, or glasses.

“North American society often likes to think of itself as classless, and there’s this strong cultural notion that anyone can move upward in society,” says Bjornsdottir. “But social class is still very much a real thing, and class mobility is quite limited.”

Abstract: Social class meaningfully impacts individuals’ life outcomes and daily interactions, and the mere perception of one’s socioeconomic standing can have significant ramifications. To better understand how people infer others’ social class, we therefore tested the legibility of class (operationalized as monetary income) from facial images, finding across 4 participant samples and 2 stimulus sets that perceivers categorized the faces of rich and poor targets significantly better than chance. Further investigation showed that perceivers categorize social class using minimal facial cues and employ a variety of stereotype-related impressions to make their judgments. Of these, attractiveness accurately cued higher social class in self-selected dating profile photos. However, only the stereotype that well-being positively relates to wealth served as a valid cue in neutral faces. Indeed, neutrally posed rich targets displayed more positive affect relative to poor targets and perceivers used this affective information to categorize their social class. Impressions of social class from these facial cues also influenced participants’ evaluations of the targets’ employability, demonstrating that face-based perceptions of social class may have important downstream consequences.
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