During the season 4 premiere of the HBO show Succession, Cousin Greg’s date to Logan Roy’s birthday party arrives carrying a Burberry tote bag that retails for about $3,000. To a family of Billionaires, counterintuitively the bag signaled she was of a lower social class. In-law Tom Wamsgans lamented that it was “ludicrously capacious” and wondered, “What’s even in there? Flat shoes for the subway? Her lunch pail? It’s gargantuan. You could take it camping. You could slide it across the floor after a bank job”. Thus, the date’s attempts to signal high social class with an expensive accessory backfired.
But we probably didn’t need the bag to determine the date’s social class; there are more subtle cues that inform status and class, including a person’s facial features.
Facial Clues and Social Class
A University of Toronto study found that social class can be determined by examining people’s neutral facial expressions. The study collected 160 pictures of people (80 males and 80 females) from a dating website. Half of the subjects made more than $150,000, and the others made less than $35,000. Then, in a series of experiments, volunteers were able to reliably determine whether the subjects were richer or poorer. Let’s see how you do in this test. Below are samples of faces used in the study. Which group is richer vs. poorer — Group C or Group D? (Answer is at bottom of blog post.)
Why Social Class Can Be Determined From A Person’s Face
Faces provide information about a person “due to visibility of the positions of muscles that become etched in the face over time as a result of repeated life experiences. Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences. Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.” Source.
People with more wealth and power typically feel and express more positive affect, while poverty causes negative affect, including increased depression and anxiety. Plus, wealth is positively correlated with better health and lower social class individuals tend to experience poorer health and increased mortality. These different life experiences become subtlety etched in neutral facial expressions.
Notably, social class could only be determined when people had a neutral facial expression. Smiling or displaying other emotions interfered with the effect.
Additionally, the study confirmed that there is a positive correlation between attractiveness and social class and that one of the cues the volunteers used was the relative attractiveness of the subjects. This is likely because people from higher social classes have more access to resources that can help them to maintain their appearance and well-being. Or maybe being more attractive confers benefits that help gain greater social status.
I think this study is a fascinating example of how much is going on under the surface of our consciousness. We don’t realize all the subconscious cues around us that affect our judgment and conclusions. And these subconscious conclusions have real-world consequences as the impressions of social class from facial cues also influenced participants’ evaluations of the targets’ employability.
And in the sample pictures above, those in Group C are richer, and Group D are poorer.