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Rich or poor? Your Face Might Be telling all About Your Social Class

People signal their social class through a variety of contexts, including their Facebook profiles, homes and accessories. No need. The face tells it all.


New research found that people can reliably tell if someone is rich or poor just by observing at a neutral face without any expression due to the high visibility of the posture of muscles that become engraved in the face over time as a result of repeated life experiences.

Previous research indicates that people signal their social class through self-presentation in a variety of contexts, including their Facebook profiles, their homes, and their accessories. Cues to social class, therefore, seem omnipresent, and judgments of social class inevitable.

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Social class influence individuals’ life outcomes and daily interactions, and the recognition at a glance of one’s socioeconomic standing can have a significant result.

People also use those sign in prejudiced ways, such as adjudicate the rich faces more likely to be hired for a job, says lead author Professor Nicholas Rule, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, and Thora Bjornsdottir 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.”

The team also revealed that the ability to read people’s social class exploit, only to their neutral face and not when they are smiling or expressing another emotion.

Their conclusion is that emotions mask life-long 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,” says Rule. “Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

81 students observed at photographs of 80 Caucasian men, and 80 Caucasian women, between the ages of 18 and 35. The Photos were collected from dating websites. The team removed all recognizing signs from the faces and put them into grayscale.

They and asked them to look at the photos and, using nothing but their gut instinct, decide which ones were rich or poor, just by glancing at the faces.

Unexpectedly high, 53 percent of the time they were able to sort the faces into the correct categories. Half of them were belonging to people who made over $150,000 a year- the rich, and a half under $35,000 a year-the poor. Then asked who belonged to which group.

“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.

The results were not affected by the race or gender of the face, or how much time people were given to study them. All of which is consistent with what is known about nonverbal behaviour.

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

“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.”

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

The study of social classes as an undercurrent in psychology and behaviour is getting more recognition, says Rule. And with 43 muscles concentrated in a relatively small area, facial cues are one of the most intriguing areas in this field.

“People talk about the cycle of poverty, and this is potentially one contributor to that,” says Rule.

He says the next step might be to study older age groups to see if the patterns of facial cues become even more apparent to people over time.



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