A new study finds that if you had just a split second to decide whether to hire me, you'd probably judge me as not competent enough for the job because of the shirt on my back.

That's because I don't tend to dress in a way that would make someone think I have much money. And new research out of Princeton University and published in Nature Human Behaviour finds that we determine people's competence in part from subtle economic cues tied to their clothing. 

The researchers ran nine studies in which participants rated the perceived competence of people wearing different clothing on their upper bodies. Those wearing clothes seen as "richer" were rated as more competent than people wearing similar clothes that appeared "poorer."

While this might not seem surprising, given old clichés like "clothes make the man" or "dress for success," it still crushes me a little bit.

I'm right on the cusp of being both a Gen-Xer and a Millennial, and for decades now it's been a bit of a joke that I tend to dress down. To this day, I still don't know how to tie a tie. When I was younger, I would receive clip-on and zip-up ties as joke gifts. I swear to you, I have pulled off wearing sweatpants as business attire in a shocking number of contexts. 

The truth is, when I was an awkward teenager, I never stood a chance of dressing for success no matter how pricey the threads, so I came to rebel against the whole concept. I also just hate the idea of spending a lot for clothing, be it in time or money. At one point, I dropped out of college and moved to Silicon Valley to join what seemed like a revolution led by an army of disheveled, hoodie-wearing outcasts I could relate to. 

And, as it turns out, I've done pretty well the past two decades without tying a tie or tucking in a shirt. Seems like an awful lot of other folks of my generation and those younger than me have pulled it off as well. 

Then comes this study to ruin it all. It finds that for an observer the link between how rich (or not) your clothes make you look and how competent you appear is apparently tough to disentangle.

"To overcome a bias, one needs to not only be aware of it but to have the time, attentional resources, and motivation to counteract the bias," the researchers wrote. "In our studies, we warned participants about the potential bias, presented them with varying lengths of exposure, gave them additional information about the targets, and offered financial incentives, all intended to alleviate the effect. But none of these interventions were effective."

In other words, there was nothing the researchers tried that seemed to take away the influence of clothing on people's perceptions of competence. Even when cash was offered to people to match the judgments of another group that rated the same faces without any indication of the clothing, they still were biased by the clothes hanging around the necks of those faces. 

This begins to explain why I've been a telecommuting independent contractor for over a decade now. My clothes haven't factored into any interviews I've had for years now because few of my clients ever get to see my thrift store wardrobe. 

As it turns out, the researchers behind the Princeton study see my situation as something employers could learn from, because it takes the potential bias out of the equation.

"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," study co-author and Princeton behavioral science professor Eldar Shafir said in a release. "Academic departments, for example, have long known that hiring without interviews can yield better scholars. It's also an excellent argument for school uniforms."

To anyone who thinks seriously about uniforms as a means of dealing with this bias, I strongly suggest sweatpants and hoodies as a comfortable way of leveling the playing field.

Published on: Dec 10, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.