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Economic status cues from clothes affect perceived competence from faces


Impressions of competence from faces predict important real-world outcomes, including electoral success and chief executive officer selection. Presumed competence is associated with social status. Here we show that subtle economic status cues in clothes affect perceived competence from faces. In nine studies, people rated the competence of faces presented in frontal headshots. Faces were shown with different upper-body clothing rated by independent judges as looking ‘richer’ or ‘poorer’, although not notably perceived as such when explicitly described. The same face when seen with ‘richer’ clothes was judged significantly more competent than with ‘poorer’ clothes. The effect persisted even when perceivers were exposed to the stimuli briefly (129 ms), warned that clothing cues are non-informative and instructed to ignore the clothes (in one study, with considerable incentives). These findings demonstrate the uncontrollable effect of economic status cues on person perception. They add yet another hurdle to the challenges faced by low-status individuals.

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Fig. 1: Experimental procedure and stimuli in the competence-rating task.
Fig. 2: Effect of economic status cues from clothes on competence ratings.
Fig. 3: Competence ratings of faces.
Fig. 4: Proportion selecting face with richer clothing as being the more competent in a choice task.

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All data and stimuli are available on Open Science Framework:


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We thank B. Labbree, R. Drach, S. Anjur-Dietrich, A. Duker and K. Solomon for help with running the experiments. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (award no. 1426642) and the Sloan Foundation (grant no. 2014-6-16). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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E.S. and A.T. devised the study concept. All authors designed the experiments and wrote the manuscript. D.O. collected and analysed data.

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Correspondence to DongWon Oh.

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Peer review information Primary handling editor: Aisha Bradshaw

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Supplementary Results, Figs. 1–8, Supplementary Tables 1–3 and Supplementary References.

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Oh, D., Shafir, E. & Todorov, A. Economic status cues from clothes affect perceived competence from faces. Nat Hum Behav 4, 287–293 (2020).

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