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Clothing and competence: Those who look richer appear smarter to us


“Focus on the person themselves and ignore other features, such as their clothes.” This was said to half of the subjects who were supposed to assess photos of completely strange people for a study by New York University and Princeton University. The task of the test subjects: They should indicate whether they rated the people who the researchers showed them in photos as competent – or not.

The psychological study, which was published in the journal “Nature Human Behavior”, consisted of nine individual studies. In some, the subjects were asked to individually rate the faces and associated upper bodies that were shown to them; In the last study, the scientists showed the test subjects two faces at a time and asked them to assess which of them they considered more competent.

The test subjects considered “poorer” people to be more incompetent

Two things were crucial here, first: The test subjects had dressed individually and differently before both Faces assessed individually as competent. Secondly, most of the test persons now considered the person more competent to be the person whose outer clothing (shirt, blouse, sweater) indicated a higher socio-economic standard – which therefore seemed more prosperous to them.

To show you what the “richer” and “poorer” people’s clothes looked like in the photos, we asked the US researchers for sample photos. In the left half of the picture you can see how the supposedly wealthier people were dressed in the photos, which most of the test subjects considered to be more competent. In the right half you can see the photos of the “poorer” dressed people who were considered by the test subjects to be less competent. Even by the 50 percent of the test subjects who had been explicitly warned beforehand not to be guided by external characteristics such as clothing in their assessment.

DongWon Oh / Eldar Shafir / Alexander Todorov

Incidentally, the test subjects seemed to make their judgment extremely quickly. In one go, the researchers showed them the photos for only 129 milliseconds. Nevertheless, the majority of the test subjects chose the wealthier dressed people again when it came to the question: “Who is more competent?”

For people who actually have little money and who have to dress like the supposedly poorer people in the photos, this result can have serious consequences, researchers DongWon Oh, Eldar Shafir and Alexander Todorov believe. “Poverty mixes many challenges – physical, social and psychological. Another challenge is to be perceived as less competent and less respected. It can make existing worries worse and the performance of those affected worse. As a result, poverty increases to a certain extent, ”the study concludes.

The study confirms what other studies have previously suggested: We often think that people who “look poor” are less able. It is certainly difficult not to commit this fatal mistake of thinking so often – but it is definitely worth a try.


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