Our faces could reveal whether we're rich or poor

By Lindsay de Freitas
16 July 2017

"If you ask them why, they don't know. They are not aware of how they are doing this."

In a bizarre twist on the idea of ‘first impressions’ scientists have found that our neutral facial expressions can reveal how wealthy we are.

A new study by a team at the University of Toronto in Canada has found that people can reliably tell whether somebody is richer or poorer just by glancing at their expressionless face.

According to the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, neutral facial expressions are a reliable indicator of a person’s economic standing and could even influence social interactions as well as our success in the job market.

The team’s findings showed that the expressions which accompany frequent emotions, like happiness which is stereotypically associated with being wealthy and satisfied, become etched on a person's face. And what’s more, according to the study that this can happen as early as the late teens or early adulthood.

"Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences,” says Associate Professor Nicholas Rule from the university’s Faculty of Arts and Science. "Even when we think we're not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

In order to conduct the experiment researchers grouped student volunteers into those with total family incomes under $60 000 (just over R800 000) or above $100 000 (just over R1,3 million) and then had them pose for photos with neutral, expressionless faces.

The team then asked a separate group of participants to look at the photos and use only their gut instinct to decide which ones were “rich or poor”. The participants were able to determine which student belonged to the rich or poor group with roughly 53 percent accuracy – a number which researchers claim exceeds random choice.

“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 Professor 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. We are sort of hardwired to look for face-like stimuli. And this is something people pick up very quickly,” he explains, adding that this particular brain function is what makes the findings so statistically significant.

The biggest concern with the ground-breaking study is that if we are able to make such accurate judgements just by looking at a face then we can also use those impressions in biased ways.

Recruiters may hire a ‘rich face’ for a job rather than a ‘poor face’, says Associate Professor Nicholas Rule. "People talk about the cycle of poverty, and this is potentially one contributor to that."

But a PhD candidate from the faculty, Thora Bjornsdottir, cautions against laying the blame with those making the judgements.

"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. They are not aware of how they are doing this."

According to Professor Rule the study of social classes as a theme in psychology and behavior is getting more and more recognition. The face has 43 muscles, which are concentrated in a relatively small area - making facial cues one of the most intriguing areas in this field.

Going forward, the research team say studies on older volunteers could reveal whether these patterns carry across over the years or even become more apparent with age.

Sources: dailymail.co.uk. wcpo.com. utoronto.ca. sciencedaily.com.

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