Illustration: Alison Seiffer

Want people to take you more seriously? Consider upgrading your shirt. According to a study by three Princeton researchers published in Nature Human Behavior in December, your clothing plays an outsized role in first impressions.

Behavioral scientist and Woodrow Wilson School professor Eldar Shafir has long studied the relationship between poverty and perception. For this study, he teamed up with psychology professor Alexander Todorov, an expert on facial perception, and former student and lead author DongWon Oh *18, now a postdoc at New York University, to examine just how much clothing influences people when judging another person’s competence. They found that wearing “richer” clothing had a surprisingly large impact on how people were perceived.

The study demonstrates the power of subtle economic cues, says Eldar Shafir.
Photo: Jerry Nelson
The researchers showed pictures of men’s clothing to study participants, who rated the clothing on how “rich” or “poor” it looked. Not surprisingly, more formal attire was almost always perceived as “richer” than other clothes; beyond that, however, judges made fine gradations in evaluating different T-shirts and sweatshirts. “In the context of our subjects, Hawaiian shirts make you look poorer,” Shafir says. “I’m not sure if that’s true in Honolulu, but it was true here.”

They then paired men’s faces with the clothing from the chest up, and asked participants to rate the competence of the wearer. They found that for identical faces, the “richer” clothing had a huge effect on perception, with an average increase of two points on a 10-point scale. “The robustness of the effect was much more than I expected,” Shafir says. The judgments were remarkably consistent, regardless of race, and remained consistent even in photos shown in quick flashes.

Four examples of the faces and chests shown to the study participants.
Graphic: courtesy DongWon Oh *18, Eldar Shafir, and Alexander Todorov; faces: Springer Nature and Chicago Face Database
The clothing biases persisted despite researchers’ efforts: They told participants that the two people being rated had identical professions and income; instructed them to ignore clothing; and even provided bonus pay based on how close participants’ judgments came to those made by people who were only shown faces. But the impact of clothes persisted. 

The study demonstrates the power of subtle economic cues, says Shafir: “It’s very likely that similar things are happening with quality of teeth, quality of hair, quality of skin — anything else that signals class.” 

More to the point, however, it highlights the need for those doing the judging — for example, a manager conducting a job interview — to overcome snap impressions. “If you know your first impression is a terribly biased one, perhaps you can avoid it” — for example, choose candidates without meeting in person or provide standard uniforms, says Shafir. “If that’s not possible, at least make an effort to transcend it, think of what might be influencing you inappropriately, and work against it.”