Wearing ‘Rich’ Or ‘Poor’ Clothing Impacts Split-Second Judgments of Competence

As humans, we are known for being judgmental—it’s one of our less favorable traits. It wouldn’t as bad if these judgements, particularly ones from first impressions, were not formed as quickly (typically in the time it takes to blink), as prone to mistakes, and as difficult to change. To this point, new research via Princeton found that first impressions of competence are strongly impacted by what you’re wearing, and can be made in a tiny fraction of a second. Through the research, it was discovered that even when specifically paid to ignore what people are wearing (and not consider the clothing as relevant), they still couldn’t ignore the clothes.

The results from the study were published in Nature Human Behavior.

The research team performed a bunch of experiments to examine the impact of clothing on perceived competence. The team showed pictures of various people in different clothes to participants. The pictures were from the shoulders up with people in clothing characterized as “poor” or “rich”, but none of the items were examples of extreme poverty or wealth. The ratings for the pieces of clothes were validated beforehand by testing them with another group of people. People in rich clothes (i.e., ties and suits) were judged, over and over again, as having more competence than those wearing poor clothing. Even informal rich clothes were still receiving a higher score for competency ratings than informal poor clothing.

The same judgements of competence were made by those specifically asked to ignore clothes or paid to ignore the clothing. These competency judgements even occurred when given info regarding the incomes and professions with the pictures, in an attempt to resolve issues of bias. Finally, it happened when participants received varying amounts of time to judge competence from pictures, from 0.129 seconds to one second.

There are tons of applications in the real-world to this, particularly for those who don’t have “rich” clothing and cannot afford “rich” clothing. There are many obstacles that those living in poverty face. Rather than respecting the struggle, the rest of society tends to look at those in poverty with disrespect and persistent disregard. The research found such disrespect to be unmerited because identical faces were seen as less competent when shown with poorer clothing. This can start within the first tenth of a second of the first meeting with someone.

The team of researchers urge for other people to do research to develop effective methods to deal with such detrimental bias. While waiting for research to find solutions, some practices that are currently in place might be of aid in the battle against bias. Making specific decisions regarding applicants for jobs or colleges according to criteria found “on paper” might help to at least deal with part of the bias. Teachers, for example, try to grade students without looking at their name first in order to resolves biases. Another example comes from academia. Academic departments have known that better scholars can be produced by hiring without interviews. Also, it’s an argument in favor of wearing uniforms at school.”

There still remains a lot of work to be done regarding the negative consequences of bias surrounding split second decisions from what clothing someone is wearing. Wealth inequality has become worse and worse for the U.S. since the 1980s. Currently, the gap between those in the top 1% and those in the middle class is 1,000,000%. According to the research, the cues from what clothing someone is wearing are hard if not impossible for people to ignore.

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