Humans are famously judgey—it’s one of our more unfortunate traits. It wouldn’t be so harmful if judgments, especially first impressions, weren’t formed so quickly (i.e., in less than a second), so prone to error, and so hard to break. To this end, a new study from Princeton University finds that first impressions of a person’s competence can be strongly affected by the clothes he or she is wearing, and can be made in a tiny fraction of a second. And, the study found, even when people were paid to ignore clothes as a relevant factor, they couldn’t.
The study was published earlier this month in the journal Nature Human Behavior.
The researchers carried out a number of experiments to look at the effect of clothes on perceived competence. They showed participants pictures of people from the shoulders up, wearing either “rich” or “poor” clothing, though none of the clothing items the respective groups were really extreme examples of either (ratings of the different types of clothing were also validated by testing them out on another group of participants beforehand).
People wearing rich clothing (e.g., suits and ties) were judged, again and again, as being more competent than people wearing poor clothing. Even when rich clothing was informal (see photo), it still triggered higher ratings of competence than informal poor clothing.
And even when participants were expressly told to ignore clothing, or paid to ignore it, they still made the same competence judgments. The same was true when participants were given information about the professions and incomes of the people in the pictures, to try to counteract the bias. Finally, it occurred when the participants were given varying amounts of time to make a judgment, from 0.129 seconds to one second.
The study obviously has lots of real-world application, namely that already-disadvantaged people might face more disadvantage if they cannot afford “rich” clothing. “Poverty is a place rife with challenges,” said study co-author Eldar Shafir in a statement. “Instead of respect for the struggle, people living in poverty face a persistent disregard and disrespect by the rest of society.
We found that such disrespect — clearly unfounded, since in these studies the identical face was seen as less competent when it appeared with poorer clothing — can have its beginnings in the first tenth of a second of an encounter.”
The authors urge that effective strategies to counteract bias be researched further. In the meantime, some practices already in place may help: making certain decisions about job applicants or students based on resumes or other “on paper” criteria may reduce at least some of the bias.
“Just like teachers sometimes grade blindly so as to avoid favoring some students,” said Shafir, “interviewers and employers may want to take what measures they can, when they can, to evaluate people, say, on paper so as to circumvent indefensible yet hard to avoid competency judgments. Academic departments, for example, have long known that hiring without interviews can yield better scholars. It’s also an excellent argument for school uniforms.”
But there’s still a lot at stake. Humans likely evolved to make very quick decisions based on physical attributes, and we’re still trying to overcome that “ability,” as it can be wholly inaccurate and a contributing factor to persisting inequality.
“Wealth inequality has worsened since the late 1980s in the United States,” said lead author DongWon Oh, a PhD student at the time of the study. “Now the gap between the top 1% and the middle class is over 1,000,000%, a mind-numbing figure. Other labs’ work has shown people are sensitive to how rich or poor other individuals appear. Our work found that people are susceptible to these cues when judging others on meaningful traits, like competence, and that these cues are hard, if not impossible, to ignore.”