New York: People tend to instantly judge others as more competent if they come dressed in “richer” clothing, says a study that warned that such economic cues are hard to ignore. In nine studies conducted by researchers, people rated the competence of faces wearing different upper-body clothing.
Clothing perceived as “richer” by an observer — whether it was a T-shirt, sweater, or other top — led to higher competence ratings of the person pictured than similar clothes judged as “poorer,” the researchers found.
Given that competence is often associated with social status, the findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities — simply from looking at their clothing.
“Poverty is a place rife with challenges. Instead of respect for the struggle, people living in poverty face a persistent disregard and disrespect by the rest of society,” said study co-author Eldar Shafir, Professor at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University in the US.
“We found that such disrespect — clearly unfounded, since in these studies the identical face was seen as less competent when it appeared with poorer clothing — can have its beginnings in the first tenth of a second of an encounter,” Shafir said. The researchers began with images of 50 faces, each wearing clothes rated as “richer” or “poorer” by an independent group of judges.
Based on those ratings, the researchers selected 18 black and 18 white face-clothing pairs displaying the most prominent rich-poor differences. These were then used across the nine studies. Participants were then presented with half of the faces wearing “richer” upper-body clothing, and the other half with “poorer” clothing.
The researchers found that across the studies faces were judged as significantly more competent when the clothing was perceived as “richer.” This judgment was made almost instantaneously and also when more time was provided.
When warned that clothing had nothing to do with competence, or explicitly asked to ignore what the person in the photo was wearing, the biased competency judgments persisted.