Just by looking at a face, what can one know about that person?
A new study from the University of Toronto found people have the ability to predict if an individual is rich or poor, all by looking at their face.
Those impressions are then used in biased ways, such as choosing the rich faces over the poor faces for who should be hired for jobs, said associate professor Nicholas Rule and Thora Bjornsdottir, a graduate student of the Faculty of Arts and Science. The pair recently published an article on these findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“It indicates that something as subtle as the signals in your face about your social class can actually then perpetuate it,” says Bjornsdottir.
“Those first impressions can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s going to influence your interactions, and the opportunities you have.”
However, people can’t accurately know another’s social class when that person is smiling or showing other emotions. The researchers discovered this only works when the face is expressionless.
Their conclusion is that emotions mask lifelong habits of expression that become etched on a person’s face even by their late teens or early adulthood, such as frequent happiness, which is stereotypically associated with being wealthy and satisfied, says the U of T article.
Rule explained that over time an individual’s face comes to permanently reflect and reveal their experiences.
“Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there,” he said.
After separating student volunteers into groups with either a total family income of less than $60,000 or above $100,000 and having them pose with neutral expressions, the researchers then had another group of volunteers look at the photos. They were told to base whether they thought someone was rich or poor by using their gut instinct on a level higher than random chance, said researchers.
“What we’re seeing is students who are just 18-22 years old have already accumulated enough life experience that it has visibly changed and shaped their face to the point you can tell what their socio-economic standing or social class is,” says Rule.
He added certain neurons in the brain specialize in facial recognition, and the face is the first thing noticed about a person.
“We see faces in clouds, we see faces in toast. We are sort of hardwired to look for face-like stimuli. And this is something people pick up very quickly. And they are consistent, which is what makes it statistically significant.”
Bjornsdottir said, “People are not really aware of what cues they are using when they make these judgments. If you ask them why, they don’t know.”
Rule said these findings are a potential contributor to the poverty cycle.
The next study might involve older age groups to see if over time the patterns of facial cues become more apparent to people.