In business and networking, first impressions can make or break a potentially lucrative and successful relationship.
As a rule, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover -- making assumptions is a recipe for misunderstandings and miscommunication. But it is unfortunately human nature to make snap judgements about people based on how they present and carry themselves.
Researchers at the University of Toronto recently conducted a study to learn more about how people perceive and mentally categorize someone’s social class and background based on facial images and cues.
"Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences," explained psychology professor Dr. Nicholas Rule, one of the study’s co-authors, in a summary of the findings. "Even when we think we're not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there."
The researchers photographed two groups of students, one cohort with a total family income below $60,000 and another cohort above $100,000. The photo subjects had completely neutral facial expressions. Then another group of students were asked to look at the photos and decide whether they thought the person in each photo was rich or poor.
Without anything to go on but instinct, the researchers found that the students were able to sort people correctly with 53 percent accuracy -- slightly higher than a 50/50 result. The researchers noted that neither time spent looking at the photos or the gender or race of the photo subjects impacted the results.
Rule and co-author Thora Bjornsdottir also identified that neutral expressions that are most revealing of social backgrounds.
“One may mask one’s social class by displaying a positive emotional expression,” the co-authors wrote. “Appearing happier (or less negative) may lead others to perceive a person as higher-class (at least within the context of some less happy-looking).”
One of the more significant conclusions of the study illuminated how first impressions can bear out in situations such as recruiting and hiring. Employers who aim to avoid class bias or perpetuating socioeconomic disadvantage should be wary of this.
“Participants rated rich targets as more suitable for employment than poor targets,” the co-authors wrote. “Notably, both participants with and without hiring experience showed susceptibility to this bias in favor of the rich.”