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Your 'Neutral' Face May Give Away Your Social Class

Your ‘Neutral’ Face May Give Away Your Social Class

People may be able to determine your social status just by looking at your “neutral” face without any expression, according to a new study by psychology researchers at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts and Science.

These impressions might also be used in biased ways, as many people tend to judge a “rich” face as more likely than a poor one to be hired for a job.

“It indicates that something as subtle as the signals in your face about your social class can actually then perpetuate it,” said researcher Thora Bjornsdottir, a Ph.D. candidate. “Those first impressions can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s going to influence your interactions, and the opportunities you have.”

Surprisingly, the researchers found the ability to read a person’s social class only applies to their neutral face and not when people are smiling or expressing emotions.

The researchers conclude 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.

“Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences,” said Associate Professor Dr. Nicholas Rule. “Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

Using an annual median family income of about $75,000 as a benchmark, student volunteers were placed in one of two groups in which the total family income was under $60,000 or above $100,000. Then the students posed for photographs with neutral faces devoid of expression.

Next, a separate group of participants looked at the photos and, using nothing but their gut instinct, identified which ones were “rich or poor” just by looking at the faces. They were able to determine which student belonged to the rich or poor group with about 53 percent accuracy, a level that exceeds random chance.

“People are not really aware of what cues they are using when they make these judgments,” Bjornsdottir said. “If you ask them why, they don’t know. They are not aware of how they are doing this.”

Race and gender did not affect the results.

“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 socioeconomic standing or social class is,” said Rule.

“There are neurons in the brain that specialize in facial recognition. The face is the first thing you notice when you look at somebody,” he said. “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.”

The study of social classes is a growing field in the realm of psychology and behavior, Rule said. And with 43 muscles concentrated in a relatively small area, facial cues are one of the most intriguing areas to study.

“People talk about the cycle of poverty, and this is potentially one contributor to that,” Rule said. He said the next step might be to study older age groups to see if the patterns of facial cues become even more prominent over time.

The findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Source: University of Toronto

Your ‘Neutral’ Face May Give Away Your Social Class

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Your ‘Neutral’ Face May Give Away Your Social Class. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 8 Jul 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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