People are making snap judgments about your competence based on what you’re wearing

We all know that what you wear to the job interview matters, and new research suggests that it might even matter more than you think. In fact, people are making snap judgments about your competence based on what you’re wearing.

A study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour by Princeton University, found that people are judging other people’s competence based on subtle economic cues from their clothing. These judgments are made in a split second and possibly on a subconscious level.

According to a research brief, in nine studies, photos of men’s faces were shown to subjects of people wearing different upper body clothing and the subjects were asked to rate their competence. When the clothing perceived as “richer” by the subject, the person pictured was rated as more competent than when the clothing was perceived as poorer. The differences in clothing were subtle and “did not portray extreme wealth or poverty.”

After the clothing had been rated as “rich” or “poor,” participants were presented with half of the faces wearing “richer” upper-body clothing, and the other half with “poorer” clothing and told that the researchers were interested in how people evaluate others’ appearances. They saw the images for three different lengths of time, ranging from about one second to approximately 130 milliseconds, which is barely long enough to realize one saw a face, and asked to rate the competence of the faces they saw. The rating were consistent regardless of the length of time people looked a the faces.

Over nine studies researchers made tweaks to the experiments, like putting the people in suits an ties and in non-formal clothing, and telling participants there was no relationship between clothes and competence or explicitly instructing them to ignore the clothing. They also tried telling participants about the persons’ profession and income.

Across all the studies, faces were judged as significantly more competent when the clothing was perceived as “richer” and this judgment was reportedly made almost instantaneously.

The researchers say that this indicates a bias against poorer people and can lead to further hurdles for them to overcome. They say an important concern for future psychological work is how to transcend first impressions.

“Knowing about a bias is often a good first step,” said Eldar Shafir, Professor in Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “A potential, even if highly insufficient, interim solution may be to avoid exposure whenever possible. Just like teachers sometimes grade blindly so as to avoid favoring some students, 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.”

Its not the first research to suggest clothing plays an important role in how others perceive us, and studies have also found that our attire also plays a role in how we perceive ourselves.

For instance, a paper published in 2015 found that wearing formal attire increased abstract thinking. And another study in 2014 found that men in formal attire made more profitable deals in negotiating games, and also had higher testosterone levels, than men in sweats. And a 2012 study found that research subjects made half as many mistakes on an attention-demanding task when wearing a white lab coat compared those who weren’t wearing a lab coat. People who were told their lab coat was a doctor’s coat also performed better than those who were told it was a painter’s smock.

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