Stereotype-linked Facial Features Prompt Perception of Social Class

facial feature perception

A potent hierarchy, social class determines a variety of advantages and disadvantages in society. Existing research indicates that individuals form rapid judgments regarding the social class status of others, which can have significant ramifications. However, the precise factors that influence these judgments and their connection to assessments of beneficial or detrimental stereotypes remain unknown.

In order to determine the precise 3D facial features that influence perceptions of social class standing and demonstrate how these relate to other stereotype-related judgments, a recent study used a perception-based, data-driven methodology.

Led by a team of researchers at the University’s of Glasgow School of Psychology and Neuroscience, the research focused on the question of what makes someone appear to be of a higher or lower social class standing (or what makes someone look rich vs. poor), and how these appearances are linked to perceptions of competence, warmth, dominance, and trustworthiness — traits which are stereotypically linked to social class. The study was carried out with white participants from Western cultures, employing a large number of face stimuli.

Advantageous or Unfavorable Traits

The findings show that social class judgments are based on a distinctive constellation of facial characteristics. Faces that were considered to be of lower social status displayed distinct attributes, including greater width, shorter stature, flatter contours, downturned jaws, and darker, cooler complexions.

Each of these facial features also made faces appear more incompetent, cold, or untrustworthy. In contrast, faces perceived as rich were narrower and longer with upturned mouths and lighter, warmer complexions — features which corresponded to those associated with perceptions of competence, warmth, and trustworthiness.

“People who are perceived to be of high or low social class standing are also often judged as having advantageous or unfavorable traits, respectively. Such judgements are formed even just from facial appearance, and this can have substantial downstream consequences, including disadvantaging those who are perceived to be of lower social class standing,”

said corresponding author Dr. R. Thora Bjornsdottir.

Stereotypes Bias Perception

Through the disclosure of the facial characteristics that underpin these subjective evaluations, the research offers fresh perspectives on the determinants of wealth or poverty in appearance and illustrates the relationship between these evaluations and positive and negative stereotypes (e.g., competence versus ineptitude).

“The results suggest that social class stereotypes explain the link between facial appearance and judgements of individuals’ social class standing. This highlights that the stereotypes we hold are consequential for how we perceive others—they bias our perceptions. Our impressions of other people can then lead to particular advantages or disadvantages for them,”

Bjornsdottir said.

“Our research demonstrates how specific facial attributes play a pivotal role in connecting social class perceptions with related stereotypes. These findings are not only valuable for advancing our understanding of central social perception theories, but could also help with future interventions designed to interrupt biased perceptions,”

Prof Rachael E. Jack, Professor of Computational Social Cognition, added.

  1. Bjornsdottir, R. T., Hensel, L. B., Zhan, J., Garrod, O. G. B., Schyns, P. G., & Jack, R. E. (2024). Social class perception is driven by stereotype-related facial features. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1037/xge0001519