For Richer, For Poorer, Our Faces Betray Us

We’ve all heard the saying ‘he’s got a good face for radio’, but it would appear some may have a good face for success, too. A study by the University of Toronto published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concludes that our manner betrays the bulge—or not—of our bank balance, and the significance or not—of our social status.


Rightly or wrongly, knowingly or subconsciously, we use facial information to make instant assumptions about people’s sex, race, age and religion, maybe even their politics or sexuality. So, says co-lead study author, Nicholas O. Rule, a psychology professor at Toronto University, it’s logical that “people could get social class information” from others’ faces.

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

Rule, with co-author and psychology doctoral student R. Thora Bjornsdottir, asked students to study 160 black-and-white, emotionless headshots, half of which were Caucasian men, the rest Caucasian women, all aged 18-35-years-old. The faces were equally split between high and low wage brackets — and thus upper and lower classes — and the students were asked to sort which faces belonged to which group. Their success rate was 53%, way out of the realms of chance, shocking the authors of the study. Rule says that he didn’t expect the effects to be quite so strong, “especially given how subtle the differences are”. According to Bjornsdottir, we are not aware of the cues we use when making such judgements.

There are 43 muscles in our faces. Depending on whether we spend most of our time smiling or scowling (the presumption being those from richer backgrounds are likely to have more comfortable, smiling lives) their contractions, over time, leave subtle but permanent imprints that act as markers as to our wealth and class that others can pick up on (interestingly, the students were less successful in their judgements when the subjects were expressing emotion). Those who smile or laugh more develop a more positive ‘neutral’ expression. “Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences,” Rule says. “Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

What’s more our faces’ social ‘signs’ can develop as early as our teens. This, the study concludes, is of concern as it may contribute toward “the cycle of poverty”, with wealthier folk more likely to be successful in job interviews as they have a sunnier, if only subtly, demeanour. “It indicates that something as subtle as the signalsin your face about your social class can actually perpetuate it,” says Bjornsdottir. “Those first impressions can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s going to influence your interactions, and the opportunities you have.”

So get smiling.

Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces