People tend to associate negative emotional expressions with lower social class standing and positive expressions with higher social class standing, according to new research published in the journal Emotion. The findings indicate that stereotypes about class differences in wellbeing influence our perceptions of others.
“Previous research shows that people are quick to form impressions of others’ social class standing, and that these impressions can have substantial consequences, for example, affecting judgments of someone’s suitability for a job,” said study author R. Thora Bjornsdottir, an assistant professor at Royal Holloway, University of London.
“It’s therefore important to understand what drives these impressions. My own work has shown that people form impressions of social class even when all they see is someone’s face. People judge more positive-looking faces as higher in social class, in line with the stereotype that richer people are happier. Building on this, I wanted to see what specific emotion-related stereotypes people had of social class and whether we could use them to manipulate impressions of others’ social class.”
To gauge what facial expressions to focus on, the researcher first surveyed 30 individuals regarding what emotions they thought rich and poor people tended to experience. Then, in four studies that included 675 individuals in total, participants viewed images of faces with varying expressions and categorized each into a social class group.
The researchers found that faces were more likely to be perceived as belonging to a poor or working class person when they displayed an angry, disgusted, fearful, or sad facial expression compared to a neutral expression. Faces were more likely be perceived as belonging to a rich person when displaying a happy facial expression.
“Our results show that emotion expressions can shift perceptions of social class — the same person appears higher in social class when expressing positive emotion and lower in social class when expressing negative emotion, compared to when they are neutral,” Bjornsdottir told PsyPost.
“This indicates that people associate emotion expressions’ valence (positivity vs. negativity) with social class. The specific emotion expressions (e.g., sadness, disgust) don’t seem to matter, just whether the expression is positive or negative. This indicates that people rely on a broad stereotype of low social class as negative and high social class as positive, rather than on stereotypes about the specific emotions experienced by higher versus lower class people, when forming their impressions of others’ social class from their faces.”
Although the present research focused on facial expressions, there are several other factors that affect judgments of one’s economic status. “Emotion expressions are of course not the only thing people use to infer others’ social class,” Bjornsdottir said. “Attractiveness and attire, for example, also play important roles in impressions of social class, and the relative importance of each of these is still not clear.”
The study, “Negative emotion and perceived social class“, R. Thora Bjornsdottir and Nicholas O. Rule.