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In a split second, clothes make a person seem more competent in the eyes of others

December 22, 2019

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In a split second, clothes make a person seem more competent in the eyes of others

People perceive a person's competence partly based on subtle economic cues emanating from the person's clothing, according to a study published in Nature Human Behavior. These judgments are made in a matter of milliseconds and are very hard to avoid.

In nine studies conducted by the 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 suggest that low-income individuals may face hurdles in relation to how others perceive their abilities—simply from looking at their clothing.

What the researchers say: "Poverty is 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 the study co-author. "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."

"Wealth inequality has worsened since the late 1980s in the United States. Now the gap between the top 1% and the middle class is over 1,000,000%, a mind-numbing figure," said the lead author. "Other labs' work has shown people are sensitive to how rich or poor other individuals appear. Our work found that people are susceptible to these cues when judging others on meaningful traits, like competence, and that these cues are hard, if not impossible, to ignore."

The researchers began with images of 50 faces, each wearing clothes rated as "richer" or "poorer" by an independent group of judges who were asked, "How rich or poor does this person look?" 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 saw the images for three different lengths of time, ranging from about one second to approximately 130 milliseconds, which is barely long enough to realize one saw a face, the researchers noted. Remarkably, ratings remained consistent across all time durations.

In several of the studies that followed, the researchers made tweaks to the original design. In some studies, they replaced all suits and ties with non-formal clothing. In others, they told participants there was no relationship between clothes and competence. In one study, they provided information about the persons' profession and income to minimize potential inferences from clothing. In another, they expanded the participant pool to nearly 200, and explicitly instructed participants to ignore the clothing.

Later, a new set of faces was used, and the participants were again advised to ignore the clothing. To further encourage participants to ignore the clothes, another study offered a monetary reward to those whose ratings were closest to ratings made by a group who saw the faces without clothes. In the final study, instead of asking for individual ratings, the researchers presented pairs of faces from the previous studies and asked participants to choose which person was more competent.

Regardless of these changes, the results remained consistent: Faces were judged as significantly more competent when the clothing was perceived as "richer." This judgment was made almost instantaneously and 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.

In other words, across studies, the researchers found that economic status—captured by clothing cues—influenced competency judgments.

"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."

So, what? This is an important study. What it says is that some instantaneous biases are almost impossible to overcome—even when you know that you have them. The other biases that are immediate and very difficult to shift include:

  • The assumption that taller people are smarter and more truthful than shorter ones
  • That people (male and female) with deeper voices are more trustworthy
  • That overweight people are less intelligent
  • That people with upper class accents make better leaders
  • That beautiful people—male or female—are more honest

There are many other similar biases which are based on first impressions. All are demonstrably false, but the danger is that they can become true because of the advantages and experience that people with the right clothes, accents, height or voice timbres are given. People who are assumed to be smarter actually become smarter because of the much-studied phenomenon of people aligning with people’s expectations. And the opposite is true—people can live up to lower expectations.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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