Do you wear your income on your face?

A new study in facial recognition suggests that perceived wealth could play into our unconscious biases.

A new study in facial recognition suggests that perceived wealth could play into our unconscious biases.

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

When you look at a stranger's face, what do you see? Their personality and their energy, along with their distinct physical features, instantly get imprinted in your mind, creating an impression for you to read and remember. Of course, that stranger is almost assuredly reading you in the same way, so what's written on your face? While we may think we're just making cursory scans when we see someone for the first time, new research suggests our brains actually read a lot more into what a person's face says about them — like whether they're rich or poor — and those assumptions can inform our interactions with them.

The study, conducted at the University Of Toronto, aimed to see if social class could be distinguishable from simply viewing a person's face. Using an annual family income of $75,000 as a median benchmark, researchers took photos of student volunteers with family incomes of either more than $100,000 or below $60,000 wearing neutral expressions. Upon viewing said photos, another group of student volunteers were asked to instinctually determine whether the faces they saw were either "rich" or "poor". While not overwhelmingly accurate, photo viewers did guess whether the faces were "rich" or "poor" at a rate that was statistically better than random chance.

The findings held steady regardless of the genders or ethnicities of those photographed, which suggests that we're picking up more universal facial cues, rather than being influenced by sexism or racial bias, both of which are already a pressing issues in the workforce and beyond. The results seemed to stay the same no matter how much time the viewer had to study the images too, meaning our brains start analyzing the faces we see immediately (and certainly before we're consciously aware of it). What we seem to be looking for in a "rich" face, (especially in a neutral state without expression) are signs of general happiness, as opposed to appearances that seem bogged down, stressed out or tired.

Two interesting details spring from this. Firstly, by our late teens, we appear to have enough character in our faces that others can already make assumptions about us (researchers are eager to retest this experiment with older faces). Secondly, what we're looking for reveals the inherent bias that seems to be wired into our brains. The fact that we'd assume a face with a greater sense of well-being to be the "rich" face, suggests that we also assume wealthier people live better lives. It's not hard to see why we'd think that, but it's definitely not always the case (someone with a high-paying job could be under a lot of stress, for example).

While this particular study is only a small glimpse into the complexity of facial recognition (though more research is always being done, especially as technology develops this ability), the researchers suggest that this dynamic could contribute to something as significant as the poverty cycle. The wealth gap may be the biggest problem facing our global economy and such hardwired biases could end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Say you're hiring someone for a job. It's not illogical to think that you'd gravitate towards the "happier" face, though that's only one of the limitless factors we're analyzing in our brains.

So what happens when we add those other factors? Adding race, gender and sexual orientation (just to name a few) to the equation opens up so many opportunities to make conscious and subconscious assumptions, that a world of judgement can take place before we even say hello. The reality is that we all have unconscious biases and recognizing them goes a long way in making sure they're neutralized. So the next time you judge a face, remember: it could be judging you back just as hard.