People’s Emotional Expressions Affect How Rich or Poor They Look
People hold many stereotypes related to social class. For example, people have a stereotype that richer people are happier than poorer people, a notion that does have some truth to it. These sorts of stereotypes affect people’s perceptions of others. For example, in our previous research at the University of Toronto, Nick Rule and I found that people perceive others who are smiling as richer than those with a neutral facial expression.
But what about stereotypes and perceptions of poor people? Do people view those whose faces express a negative emotion as poorer?
To understand the emotion stereotypes people have about rich and poor people, we first asked people which emotions they thought rich and poor people tend to experience, Our research participants most often mentioned anger and sadness as emotions stereotypically felt by poor people and indicated that happiness and arrogance were emotions that rich people felt more often. Participants didn’t associate just any negative emotion with being poor, though; for example, although they thought poor people felt more anger and sadness, they didn’t mention other negative emotions such as disgust or fear. This indicates that people associate only particular negative emotions with low social class.
We next tested whether expressions of these emotions affect people’s perceptions of others’ social class. If people believe that poorer people are sadder and angrier, perhaps they assume that people who look sad or angry are likely to be poor.
First, we showed participants photographs of faces, with half of the faces displaying a sad expression and half displaying a neutral expression, and asked participants to categorize each face as either rich or poor. When we compared how often participants categorized the neutral faces versus the sad faces as poor (rather than rich), we found that significantly more people categorized the sad faces as poor than the neutral faces.
We then repeated this experiment with angry faces and found the same pattern of results: More participants categorized the angry faces as poor, compared to the neutral faces. These results suggest that people’s emotion stereotypes of rich and poor people affect their perceptions of others based on their facial expressions.
Importantly, the same people appeared in the neutral, sad, and angry photos (with each participant seeing only one expression per person). This means that the same person is more likely to appear poor when expressing anger or sadness than when they have a neutral expression. This pattern also emerged regardless of the actual social class of the people whose faces we photographed (who reported their family incomes). Altogether, this means that emotion expressions can shift perceptions of people’s social class.
We next tested whether these patterns were specific to the two negative emotions that were stereotypically associated with low social class—anger and sadness—or whether any negative expression might affect people’s perceptions of someone’s social class. To do this, we obtained photographs of people who were exhibiting angry, sad, and neutral expressions, in addition to photos of them expressing disgust, a negative emotion that we did not find to be stereotypically associated with poor people. Participants then categorized these faces as rich or poor. We found that participants categorized faces that expressed any of the three negative emotions as poor more often than neutral faces. This pattern suggests that negative emotion expressions in general can shift people’s perceptions of other people’s social class, regardless of whether those emotions are stereotypically experienced more by poorer people.
Finally, we wanted to understand whether the effects of emotional expressions on inferences about other people are specific to the extreme ends of the social class spectrum (poor vs. rich). We repeated the previous experiment, adding expressions of fear and happiness and asking participants to put the faces into one of five categories—poor, working class, middle-class, upper-middle class, or upper class—rather than simply classifying them as rich or poor.
We found that the faces that participants categorized as poor or working class expressed more of the negative emotions than neutral or happy expressions, whereas faces categorized as upper-middle class or upper class expressed more happiness than neutral or negative emotions. In contrast, the faces categorized as middle class did not express any particular emotion more than the others. These findings indicate that people broadly perceive faces that express negative emotions as lower in social class and faces that express positive emotions as higher in social class.
People associate the valence—that is, positivity vs. negativity—of the emotions people express with social class. This association leads people to perceive faces that express a variety of negative emotions as lower in social class and faces that express positive emotions as higher in social class. The specific emotion expressions don’t seem to matter; only whether the expression is positive or negative affects perceptions. People appear to rely on a broad stereotype of low social class as a negative state and high social class as a positive state rather than on stereotypes about specific emotions. Our results also show that emotion expressions can shift perceptions of others’ social class, which means that people can use their emotional expressions to manage others’ impressions of them.
For Further Reading
Bjornsdottir, R.T., & Rule, N.O. (2020). Negative emotion and perceived social class. Emotion, 20, 1031-1041. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000613
R. Thora Bjornsdottir is a Lecturer/Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on first impressions of social group memberships such as social class, sexual orientation, and culture.