People can tell if you’re upper class or working class from your face

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

A new study demonstrates that people can tell if you’re upper class or working class from your face, with decent accuracy:

Bjornsdottir and her co-author, psychology professor Nicholas O. Rule, had undergraduate subjects of various ethnicities look at gray-scale photographs of 80 white males and 80 white females. None showed any tattoos or piercings. Half of the photos were of people who made over $150,000 a year, which they designated as upper class, and the other half were people who made under $35,000, or working class.

When the subjects were asked to guess the class of the people in the photos, they did so correctly 68 percent of the time, significantly higher than random chance.

I think most of us — here, at least — would assume that the kind of people who become upper class are different from the kind of people who become working class, but what kind of academic paper would suggest that?

The effect is “likely due to emotion patterns becoming etched into their faces over time,” says Bjornsdottir. The chronic contraction of certain muscles can actually lead to changes in the structure of your face that others can pick up on, even if they aren’t aware of it.

When the researchers showed the undergrads photos of people looking visibly happy, they could not discern socioeconomic status any better than chance. The expressions needed to be neutral for the subtle cues to have an effect.

“Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences,” Rule told the University of Toronto. “Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

Finally, to show how these kinds of first impressions could come into play in the real world, they asked the undergrads to decide who in the photos would be most likely to land a job as an accountant. More often than not, they went with people from the upper class, showing how these kinds of snap judgment can create and reinforce biases.

“Face-based perceptions of social class may have important downstream consequences,” they concluded.


  1. Kirk says:

    This is another one of those things where I have to wonder if the academics haven’t fundamentally confused correlation with causation, which seems to be a fundamental problem of the category “academic”.

    Being able to tell the difference between classes by looking at their faces may well be a function of those classes developing certain facial characteristics; on the other hand, it could be that the fact that they have the characteristics to become members of the upper class is what puts them there, and that those characteristics are expressed in identifiable facial features that everyone else picks up on.

    It would seem as though these researchers framed this issue as that most horrifying thing, being the existence of what they codeword “privilege”, which is a rather nebulous concept in the first place. If you start looking at the question from a standpoint assumption that the people in the upper classes got there because of some undeserved feature of their lives, you’ll frame what separates them from the herd as being created by their privilege to be in that class–Rather than a product of how they got there.

    Your appearance will reflect itself in your personality and approach to life–For extreme proof, all you need to look at are the pictures from “Faces of Meth”. On a more prosaic scale, where you’re looking at things like this study on class differences, you’ll find similar things. As well, the facial features of the blue-collar worker who primarily works with their body are going to be quite different and far more weathered/abused than the white-collar guy who never gets out of the office. Put the construction manager next to the field super, and observe the differences, which will generally be quite obvious.

    And, then there’s the whole question of what goes into someone’s ability to “take charge” of a given situation. You may be the trained expert on emergency medicine and dealing with things like car accidents, but if you meekly blend into the background, that confident guy who has no specialized training or knowledge and decides to “do something”? He’s gonna run right over your ass, and “do something”, even if it’s exactly the wrong thing. And, everyone else will follow him, because he’s demonstrating the confidence and other markers for being the senior monkey on-scene. What goes into that, when some unknown can come in and instantly dominate an incident scene, overrunning even the guys and girls who are supposed to be handling the situation? It’s more of the same thing that separates us into classes in the first place, and it’s a quality that I’m not sure is a “product of privilege” or “inequality”. Some people have it, most do not. And, the rest of the madding mob? They know, even if only subconsciously, what to look for.

    I’ve got a female friend of mine, who has the most powerful “don’t f**k with me” aura and appearance I’ve ever experienced. Where she worked there were a series of sexual assaults, one that happened so close to her in time and location that she had to have been seen by the perpetrator. When he was caught, as part of the interrogation, the cops asked him “Why not her? She’s smaller and less intimidating than the woman you chose to attack, so why didn’t you pick her as a victim…?”. Perpetrator: “Are you crazy? Have you looked at that bitch? She’d kill my ass…”. It’s all in the presented attitude and body language: Look like a victim, get chosen as one. Look like you’re a threat, and regardless of the reality in terms of physical potential, you’ll likely get left alone.

    And, yeah… She likely would have killed him, being a concealed carrier and martial arts student. She’s one of the few women who I’ve met who I’m pretty sure does follow the Mattis dictum of “Be professional, be polite… But, have a plan to kill everyone in the room, if necessary…”. And, it shows in her face. Most of the corporate officers where she worked were afraid of her, and all she was was a senior staff member. It’s all in the presentation.

  2. Albion says:

    Concepts of class have changed. Working class now means people with jobs, as opposed to the Leisure class who can be either rich (inheritance or luck) or paid to survive by the state (often thanks to taxes paid by the working class.) Upper class, if it exists, ought to be those who have power without responsibility (you might want to include many politicians, media people and ‘opinion makers’)

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