A person with a higher socioeconomic status often seems more competent – at least with regard to his work or area of interest. This status itself, in turn, often reflects the appearance – and it can be said that a person’s competence can be inferred from how he or she looks. This assumption is considered a peculiar dogma, and it is rarely empirically verified: in other words, there are not so many experimentally obtained data confirming the influence of appearance on a person’s apparent competence.
Scientists led by DongWon Oh from New York University decided to correct this flaw with a series of nine experiments. In the first eight experiments, participants (a total of 271 people: 50 to 200 depending on the experiment) were shown an image of a man in simpler or more expensive clothing, which was chosen by independent evaluators.
Depending on the experiment, people were evaluated either by students or older people, and the image was shown over different time periods: from 129 to 1100 milliseconds. In addition, in one of the experiments, the participants were given additional information (for example, they informed that the people in the images work in the sales field, and their annual income is above $ 80 thousand), they changed the person’s race in the image, asked the participants not to pay attention to clothes, and also used exclusively informal clothes – that is, they removed the images of people in shirts, jackets and ties. After the presentation of the stimulus image, for one second the participants were shown a blurred image of the participants (to control the presentation of the stimulus), and then they were asked to evaluate the person’s competence in the image on a scale of 1 to 9.
Regardless of the conditions of the experiment, participants always significantly (p <0.001) rated higher people who wore more expensive clothes. The effect was preserved even when the image was shown for a minimum time of 129 milliseconds: this, according to scientists, is not enough to examine the person’s face in the image, but enough to evaluate the most marked part — clothing.
In the ninth experiment, instead of one image, the participants (64 people who did not participate in previous experiments) were shown two: each pair used images of people who in previous experiments were estimated to be approximately equally competent, but in different clothes. Regardless of how competent people were considered, and whether the participants in the experiment were warned that the clothes were in no way related to the level of competence, in 69 percent of cases, people still considered more competent who was wearing more expensive clothes (p < 0.001).
Scientists have thus shown that a person’s appearance, or rather his clothes, is an uncontrollable factor that affects a person’s competence in the eyes of others. Interestingly, more expensive clothing, which seems to best reflect a person’s social status, affects the image even during a very small time period, which says that it takes quite a bit of time to make a first impression. Such judgments can lead to some limitations of objective evaluation, as it is obvious that in fact the appearance does not always correlate with how much a person is in is really competent.