In a recent experiment, subjects looked at black-and-white photos of people's faces alone to try to determine how wealthy they were or weren't. It turns out most of us are frighteningly good at guessing someone's socioeconomic status, even without such cues such as clothing or jewelry. Despite the adage that money can't buy happiness, it turns out that wealthier people do look happier.

Can you tell, just by looking, if someone is wealthy or poor? If yes, you may think you're relying on clues such as high-end footwear and perfect haircuts, or clothing from Walmart and tattoos. But, while all that may help, you don't really need it. A 2017 experiment that recently went viral, shows that all you really need is to see that person's face.

In the experiment, which was led by R. Thora Bjornsdottir, a researcher at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, 81 several different groups of subjects looked at photographs of 160 men and women. The photos had been pulled from dating websites. Half the photos were of people who had incomes above $150,000 a year, the other half had incomes below $35,000 a year. All the photos were of Caucasian people, although the experiment's participants were of varied ethnicities that represented the Canadian population as a whole. The people in the photos all had neutral facial expressions.

Researchers edited out the photos' backgrounds, zoomed in on faces and turned them from color to black and white. People in the photos had no tattoos or piercings visible, and although researchers don't mention this, they all appeared to have all their teeth. Even so, the subjects were able to sort them into rich and poor with 68 percent accuracy--much more than can be accounted for by random chance. 

A wealthy looking mouth?

How exactly could they tell? The researchers wondered this too, so they ran variations on the experiment in which subjects had to guess whether people in photos were wealthy or poor based on only portions of their faces. Although subjects could always make the most accurate determinations from entire faces, the researchers found that mouths, and to a lesser extent eyes, gave participants the greatest ability to correctly categorize people in the photos as rich or poor.

Eventually, through many more iterations of the experiment, they discovered that participants were at least in part guessing that people were wealthy when their neutral faces seemed to subtly reflect happiness and well-being. When people in the photos were deliberately smiling, participants were no longer able to tell who was rich and who was poor. They also found that participants were equally good at parsing rich from poor whether they could look at a photo as long as they wanted or only for half a second. This suggests that these judgments are made quickly, perhaps almost unconsciously, in the real world.

They say that money doesn't buy happiness, yet clearly we are usually able to identify the wealthy because they look happier than everyone else and we can make those judgments in a fraction of a second. Unfortunately, we may be using these quick judgments to unconsciously perpetuate the status quo. In one test, subjects were asked which among the people in the photos would be most likely to land a job as an accountant. Accountant was chosen specifically because tests show that this profession is not particularly associated with either wealthy or poor people, compared with such jobs as, say, hedge fund manager or house cleaner. Nevertheless, participants were likelier to pick the wealthy people as most likely to land the accountant job.

It's disturbing to wonder whether the same instinctive judgments get made by people making actual hiring decisions, especially since they happen so fast they may be on an unconscious level. If they are, that's bad, because it means people who start out without a lot of money will have a harder time landing a well-paying job, and if they're entrepreneurs, perhaps a harder time getting financing as well. Unconscious judgments and biases like these seem to be are notoriously hard to fight. But staying aware of them is the first step.

Published on: Nov 30, 2019
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