It Takes Only Milliseconds to Perceive Competence Based on a Person’s Clothing
Wed, April 21, 2021

It Takes Only Milliseconds to Perceive Competence Based on a Person’s Clothing

First impressions are powerful when meeting strangers in zero-acquaintance events. / Photo by lightfieldstudios via 123rf


While substance has the final word, first impressions are powerful when meeting strangers in zero-acquaintance events, such as in dating encounters, job interviews, and business. The first moments of every new encounter are significant because it creates consequences in the next encounters.

A new study conducted by Princeton University researchers, for instance, revealed that it only takes milliseconds for an observer to perceive competence about the other person based on his or her clothing. These judgments are s difficult to avoid, they are referred to as “subtle economic cues.”


Economic cues from the person’s clothes

Their study titled "Economic status cues from clothes affect perceived competence from faces," which appeared in the journal Nature Human Behavior, details that an impression of competence is a predictor of real-world outcomes, including chief executive officer selection and electoral success. Furthermore, presumed competence is linked with one’s social status. 

To come up with their conclusion that perceived perception happens in a split second, researchers DongWon Oh from the Department of Psychology of New York University and colleagues from Princeton University conducted a total of nine studies where people rated the competence of the faces of those they would see wearing different upper-body clothes. Photos of 50 faces were first flashed to the participants. Then, they were asked how poor or rich the person appeared. The results show that people perceived as “richer” had a higher competence score than when the same individuals wore “poorer” clothes. 

To ensure that the clothes did not portray extreme poverty or extreme wealth, the researchers first asked a separate batch of judges to describe the clothing only and the description showed mild differences. The words poor or rich or their synonyms were even mentioned only once out of 4,725 words.



Evaluating the person’s appearance

In their subsequent study, the team made small changes to the original designs of the clothes. For instance, they replaced all ties and suits with non-formal attire. In another study, they provided information about the person’s income and profession to minimize inferences on outward appearance. In yet another study, the researchers expanded the number of respondents to about 200 and clearly instructed them to ignore the person’s clothes in the photos. When evaluating appearance, participants were told to rely on their “gut feelings.” 

Regardless of the tweaks in the study, the results were consistent. That is, faces were judged more competent if their clothes were perceived as “richer” and the judgment was made instantaneously even if more time was provided by the researchers. The effect of their perception also persisted even if the observers were exposed to 129ms stimuli. The result only shows the “uncontrollable effect of economic status cues,” they concluded.


Social competence and clothing

Considering that social competence is usually linked with social status, the researchers stated that low-income individuals may encounter difficulties with how others perceive their capabilities by simply looking at their clothes. Instead of people respecting others for their struggle in the face of poverty, they may face disrespect and persistent disregard. “Poverty is a place rife with challenges,” said Princeton Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs’ Class of 1987 Professor in Behavioral Science and Public Policy Eldar Shafir.


Previous studies have highlighted how other individuals can be sensitive to how poor or rich other people appear.  / Photo by Iryna Kalchenko via 123rf


Oh, who is also a Ph.D. student at Princeton and now a postdoctoral fellow at NYU, added that since the late 1980s, wealth inequality has worsened in the US. There is now a “mind-numbing” 1,000,000% gap between the top 1% and those in the middle class. Previous studies have highlighted how other individuals can be sensitive to how poor or rich other people appear. In the present study, Princeton University researchers found that the public can be susceptible to economic cues when they are judging other people based on their meaningful traits, such as competence. These economic cues are impossible or hard to ignore.


Statistics of first impressions

The Dollar Shave Club, an American company that delivers razor and grooming products, conducted a survey last year to mark the launch of their cologne collection. Results confirmed that 85% of the respondents said that they would have a more positive first impression of somebody if they smell good. The positive impression doubles if they are on a date. Six in 10 Americans admit that they take less time forming first impressions in the dating world. The top 10 contributors to forming good impressions are the following: smile (53%), politeness (53%), being well-spoken (495), eye contact (495), being good listener (485), smelling nice (46%), the ability to hold a conversation well (46%), body language (44%), their tone of voice (44%), and being well dressed (42%).

On the other hand, the top three contributors to forming a bad impression are the following: smelling bad (66%), acting arrogant (62%), and dressing poorly (49%). In the dating world, the average American only takes 15 minutes until they know if they want a second date with someone.

Applying this to the business world, one has to remember that a bad impression is not the easiest to remedy. So, if you want to be successful in your endeavors, it is vital to work on those first few seconds.